Is it safe to follow a vegan diet during pregnancy?
As a vegan myself and a dietitian who specializes in vegetarian/vegan nutrition, that common question crossed my mind when I found out I was pregnant with my first baby. Despite being vegan for many years and having the nutritional background as a dietitian, I too was concerned about the health and proper growth of my baby as a new mom.
So, is a vegan diet safe and possible to follow during pregnancy? Yes! With proper attention to your meals and snacks, daily supplementation, and adequate hydration, a vegan diet is appropriate to follow during pregnancy. A vegan diet is a healthy eating pattern for both mommy and baby, it just means meeting nutrient needs in a different way.
Nutrients to Consider for a Vegan Pregnancy
Pregnancy brings many changes and with that includes nutrition. Following a vegan diet during pregnancy isn’t all that different than pre-pregnancy but there are several nutrients to emphasis more in meals.
It’s worth noting that nutrient intake during pre-pregnancy is just as important as during and post-pregnancy. What we eat prior to conceiving may impact the health of the baby and several studies have shown that prenatal nutrition – calorie intake, protein, iron, folate and other vitamins – do improve fetal outcomes, such as the birthweight of the baby(6).
That is why it’s so important to ensure adequate calories and protein intake are met through a variety of foods. Protein requirements do increase a bit in the second and third trimester, about 25 grams more than pre-pregnancy and reaching 71 grams (3). This is a wonderful time that needs nourishment and care to support baby’s growth.
Folate is such an essential nutrient prior to conceiving and during pregnancy. This important vitamin plays a role in producing new cells as well as reducing the risk of neural tube defects in fetuses(1). During pregnancy, you need a bit more folate than pre-pregnancy and the recommended amount is 600 mcg(4).
Folate is naturally found in many foods, such as asparagus, brussel sprouts, beans, and even enriched pastas and fortified cereals. A well-balanced diet may meet your required folate for the day but it is recommended to also include a daily prenatal supplement that includes folate. I have included my prenatal supplements at the end of this post.
Iron is so important for our overall health, especially during pregnancy. Its purpose is to help carry oxygen to our body by being a central part of hemoglobin, which is a protein in red blood cells. During pregnancy, the body requires more iron to supply and support the placenta and growing baby. In essence, the body is making more red blood cells.
There are two forms of iron present in food: heme iron (predominantly found in animal products) and non-heme iron (only found in plant foods). During pregnancy, the recommended amount is 27mg/day and may increase during the second and third trimester (2). Vegans may need greater amounts of iron simply due to the availability and absorption of iron found in plant foods. Look for a prenatal vitamin that contains iron or seek an iron supplement to reduce your risk of iron deficiency during the demand of pregnancy.
Iron absorption can be enhanced by adding foods rich in Vitamin C (learn more about this in this article). Sources of plant foods that include iron are:
Tofu and Tempeh
This essential vitamin is important for all vegans because it helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells. It is not widely found in plant foods so it must be obtained daily through fortified foods, such as fortified plant-based beverages, nutritional yeast, and cereals. It is recommended to also take a daily prenatal supplement that supplies Vitamin B12 - preferably the cyanocobalamin form. The recommended amount is 2.6 micrograms/day.
Calcium is an essential nutrient for maintaining healthy bones, teeth and nerve function. It is also used to build the baby’s bones. This is why the recommended amount of calcium increases to 1,000mg per day. Although you can meet your daily needs through many plant foods, it is recommended to take a calcium supplement to prevent baby from taking all your supply. You want both you and baby to obtain adequate amounts.
Choose high-calcium plant foods such as the following:
Fortified soymilk (or other fortified plant beverage)
Fortified orange juice
Tofu (calcium-set fortified)
Vitamin D is used to help calcium build and maintain strong bones. The body can produce Vitamin D through sun exposure; however, depending on your geographical location and weather conditions, this may not always be possible. A vegan diet is not reliable in providing this important vitamin but can be obtained through many fortified plant beverages and fortified cereals. The recommended amount for Vitamin D during pregnancy is 600 IU (international units). In addition to including fortified foods in your diet, it is recommended to also include a daily supplement for Vitamin D or choose a Calcium + Vitamin D supplement.
Zinc plays many roles in the body and it's best known for maintaining a healthy immune system and promoting normal growth and development in children. Vegans need slightly higher amounts of zinc than non-vegans and that amount may increase during pregnancy. During pregnancy, the recommended amount is 11mg/day.
Zinc is often included in prenatal vitamins but found in several plant sources too, such as whole grains, fortified cereals, beans, and nuts and seeds. About 1 cup of cooked oatmeal provides 2.3mg of zinc (5).
Omega-3 fatty acids
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Only ALA is considered essential, meaning that we need to provide this to the body through food and can be found in plant foods, such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and soybeans. ALA can be converted to both EPA + DHA but the amount is very limited. Taking an algae-based EPA + DHA supplement (see at end of post), in addition to consuming plant sources rich in ALA, would be beneficial for the baby’s brain development.
All vegans need iodine – whether pregnant or not. Iodine plays a role in maintaining a healthy thyroid gland. Iodine is not widely found in many plant foods. It can be found in some fortified plant milks but they usually come up short in their amount. The best way to obtain iodine is through iodized salt or a supplement. Other salt-related condiments like soy sauce, kosher salt, or sea salt are not reliable sources as they do not contain iodine.
Vegan Prenatal Vitamins
Meeting essential nutrient needs is so important during this time of growth. As vegan moms, we want to ensure that our baby is healthy and is provided with the nutrients it needs to grow well. Meeting nutrient needs through plant foods can be possible (with the exception of Vitamin B12, of course) and best when daily supplements are coupled with our nourishing food.
There are many vegan supplements that now offer prenatal vitamins but not all are created equal. I have tried several brands but many fall short in the amounts that pregnancy demands or require me to take several different types to meet that daily requirement.
That is why I have trusted my group of daily supplements of the following:
Continuing any safe form of movement during pregnancy is important for mommy and baby's health. I really enjoy going out for runs/jogs around the lakes and I truly miss it. Since being pregnant, running hasn't felt quite comfortable and so I have opted for other joyful movements, such as cycling, walking and prenatal yoga. I enjoy using the stationary bike because it’s a cardio workout and helps strengthen my legs in preparation for delivery. Prenatal yoga simply helps me stretch and eases other discomforts that come with pregnancy.
Enjoy any other form of movement that is comfortable, enjoyable, and cleared through your physician. And most of all, enjoy this wonderful journey as a healthy vegan mom-to-be.
Have questions about following a vegan diet during pregnancy? I would love to hear from you in the comments below or via a quick message on my contact page! If you're interested in knowing what I eat and how I plan my meals, feel free to let me know too. I'm more than happy to share what my meals and snacks look like.
Creighton, C. (2015, April). Vegetarian Diets in Pregnancy. Retrieved from Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group: https://vegetariannutrition.net/docs/Pregnancy-Vegetarian-Nutrition.pdf
Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies. (2011). Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Elements. Retrieved from National Insitutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK56068/table/summarytables.t3/?report=objectonly
Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies. (2011). Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Total Water and Macronutrients. Retrieved from National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK56068/table/summarytables.t4/?report=objectonly
National Institutes of Health. (2018, March). Folate: Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet. Retrieved from National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/
Norris, J. (2014, February). Zinc. Retrieved from VeganHealth.Org: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/zinc
Piccoli et al., G. (2015, January). Vegan-vegetarian diets in pregnancy: danger or panacea? A systematic narrative review. Royal College of Obstretricians and Gynaecologists, 623-633. doi:10.1111/1471-0528.13280