How To Have A Healthy Vegan Pregnancy

Are you pregnant or currently trying to get pregnant? Are you a vegan or following a plant-based diet? You might be asking yourself if it’s safe to keep up with your diet while being pregnant. Is a vegan diet the proper diet for you during pregnancy? Will a vegan diet have any impact on your baby? So, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, how do you ensure that you’re getting the proper nutrients for your baby?

First Off, What Is A Vegan Diet?

Vegans do not consume any kind of foods derived from animals, including eggs and dairy products. A vegan diet is plant-based and only consumes plant products such as vegetable, nuts, fruits and grains or foods made entirely of plants. Veganism is becoming more popular and there are an estimated 600,000 people who are vegans and this comprises 1.16% of the population.

Is Veganism Safe During Pregnancy?

During pregnancy, it is essential to have a balanced and varied diet if you follow a vegan diet or not. A balanced diet will not only improve your health but it will also have a positive impact on your developing baby.

Consuming a vegan diet during pregnancy is safe; however, you have to eat a balanced and very diet which includes all the essential building blocks like protein carbohydrates and healthy fats from plant-based sources. Vegans and vegetarians have to keep in mind that some nutrients are only available in limited non-plant-based sources, so they have to make sure that their nutritional intake provides all the necessary nutrients that the body needs during pregnancy.

The Impact Of Folic Acid During Pregnancy

When trying to get pregnant or during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy minimally,  the suggested daily intake of folic acid for women is 400μg. This suggestion comes from the UK Department of Health. Folic acid minimises Neural Tube Defects (NTDs) risk in babies like Spina Bifida.

The maternal folic status improves when the pregnant woman takes folic acid. Women with low maternal folate status during pregnancy are at risk of having their fetus develop neural tube defects. The advantages of folic acid extend beyond 12 weeks and have a positive impact on maternal tissue growth throughout pregnancy.

Research shows that the EU RDA for vitamin B12 of 2.5 MCG along with the 400μg of folic acid further minimises the risk of NTB. It should be noted that vitamin B12 is mainly derived from dairy and animal products, but it is vital for women who are on a vegetarian or vegan diet during pregnancy.

Essential Vitamins For Vegan And Vegetarian Women During Pregnancy

It is essential to consume a varied healthy and balanced diet during pregnancy for vegan and vegetarian mothers, getting enough vitamin B12 and iron is also essential. Iron and B12 are mostly found in meat and fish. Other important nutrients include calcium and vitamin D. A home test kit for anaemia can quickly determine if you are low in iron.

How To Get The Proper Amount Of Iron In A Vegan Pregnancy

As per a 2019 Health of the Nation Survey by the HFMA, nearly half (49%) are unaware that insufficient iron could result in anaemia. Having the proper levels of iron during a vegan pregnancy is essential and the following foods are a great source of iron for pregnant vegans:

  •       Dark green vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli
  •       Dried fruit, like apricots.
  •       Fortified breakfast cereals that have added iron
  •       Pulses and legumes
  •       Wholemeal bread

The Importance of Vitamin B12 For Pregnant Vegans

There are only a few natural sources of vitamin B12 and this is why a B12 supplement is important. Vitamin B12 is found naturally in the following foods:

  •       Fortified low sugar breakfast cereals
  •       Fortified unsweetened soya drinks
  •       Yeast extract products like Marmite

The Importance of Vitamin D For Pregnant Vegans

Vitamin D is important if you are pregnant. Public Health England suggests that all adults should intake 10 micrograms of vitamin D year-round, including women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D, but you can also get it from food such as fat spreads and cereals. Vitamin D is only found in a small selection of foods, which is why taking a supplement for pregnant vegans is vital. A vitamin d deficiency test kit can very quickly determine if you need to top up on this vitamin.

How Pregnant Vegans Can Get Enough Calcium

Getting enough calcium for pregnant vegans is very important. Non-vegans can easily get their calcium from dairy products such as butter, milk and cheese.

Foods that contain vegan calcium include:

  •       Brown and white bread
  •       Calcium-set tofu
  •       Dark green leafy vegetables including spinach and kale
  •       Dried fruit
  •       Fortified unsweetened soya, rice and oat drinks
  •       Pulses
  •       Sesame seeds and tahini

Should I Notify My Doctor Or Midwife of My Vegan Diet?

Your diet should be brought up in your first meeting with your doctor or midwife. If it’s not mentioned in the first meeting, you should bring it up so that they can work out a plan to fit the dietary requirements that will be beneficial to you and your baby throughout your pregnancy.

Dietary Supplements for Pregnant Vegans

While a balanced vegan diet can provide adequate nutrition during pregnancy, some women may still need supplements to meet increased nutrient demands. Here are some common supplements to consider:

Vitamin B12: As mentioned earlier, vitamin B12 is crucial but only found naturally in animal products. All pregnant vegans should take a B12 supplement. Look for methylcobalamin or adenosylcobalamin forms which are more bioavailable.

Omega-3s: Essential fatty acids like EPA and DHA found in fish oil are critical for baby’s brain and eye development. Vegan sources include microalgae supplements or foods like walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds. However, the conversion rate from plant sources is low, so a microalgae DHA/EPA supplement is recommended.

Iron: Despite eating iron-rich plant foods, many pregnant women become anaemic due to increased blood volume. Taking a plant-based iron supplement can help prevent deficiency. Look for one with good bioavailability like ferrous bisglycinate.

Iodine: This mineral is essential for baby’s neurological development. Since iodine is highest in dairy, fish and iodized salt, vegans should take a supplement containing 150-200 mcg.

Calcium: If dietary intake is inadequate, a calcium supplement will ensure you meet increased needs of 1000-1300 mg per day. Look for calcium citrate which is well-absorbed.

Vitamin D: Though fortified foods help, many vegans still fall short on this crucial vitamin. A daily supplement providing 600 IU vitamin D3 (vegan D3 from lichen) is a good idea.

Be sure to discuss any supplements with your doctor, as amounts needed can vary based on dietary intake, blood levels and individual requirements.

Potential Risks and How to Avoid Them

While a well-planned vegan diet can absolutely support a healthy pregnancy, there are a few potential risks to be aware of:

Low Protein: Getting adequate protein from plant sources can be tricky. Pair legumes with grains to get complete proteins. Good vegan protein sources include lentils, tofu, tempeh, edamame and quinoa.

Low Calorie Intake: Some pregnant vegans may inadvertently restrict calories by avoiding calorie-dense animal products. Make sure to eat plenty of nutrient-dense whole foods like nuts, avocados, nut butters and dried fruit.

Potential Nutrient Deficiencies: Besides B12 and iron, nutrients like iodine, zinc, choline and selenium can also be lacking in vegan diets. Taking a prenatal vegan multivitamin can help cover nutritional gaps.

Potential Food Sensitivities: Many vegans consume a lot of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds which are common allergens. If experiencing digestive issues, consider getting tested and avoiding trigger foods.

The key is advanced planning and being mindful of food choices. Prioritise nutrient-dense whole plant foods, take appropriate supplements as needed, and have regular check-ups with your doctor or midwife. With care and knowledge, a vegan pregnancy can absolutely be safe and healthy for both mother and baby.

Photo “Vegan Pregnancy” by Anthony Cunningham for Zoom Health

Zoom Health is a leading UK supplier of Home Health Tests and Earplugs

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