Pregnant women get a lot of (unsolicited) advice, from which items to put on their registries to how to diaper their kiddos. And if there’s one thing everyone seems to have an opinion on, it’s what pregnant women should (or shouldn’t!) eat. Sure, most of this advice is from well meaning friends and family, but it can be mighty frustrating to sort out the fact from the fiction.
If you’ve been getting mixed advice about whether you can safely be vegan and pregnant, you’re not alone. Here’s what nutrition science says about a vegan diet for pregnancy. (Spoiler: yes, it's safe!)
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When you first tell friends and family you plan to continue your vegan diet during pregnancy, you may hear from a few naysayers. These (often well meaning) folks tend to think you just can’t get the nutrients you and your growing baby need when you’re vegan and pregnant. Science, however, tells us a different story.
A well-planned plant-based diet can absolutely be safe during pregnancy. In fact, eating a well rounded plant-based diet can not only give you all the nutrients you need and health benefits galore (from disease prevention to healthier skin and hair to a lighter environmental impact), but can also help you maintain a healthy weight during pregnancy and reduce your risk for developing gestational diabetes (1).
Ok, ok...but can you get enough calories? What about protein? Calcium and Vitamin D from non-dairy sources? And how about can you get Omega-3s and DHA without eating fish? Do you need prenatal vitamins?
All fantastic questions. Let’s get to the bottom of them.
It turns out the whole “eating for two” thing is sort of a myth. Yes, you need to eat more calories during pregnancy but it’s probably not as many as you think — about 340 extra calories per day in the second trimester and 450 extra calories per day by the third trimester. Very doable on a plant based diet.
See, not so hard, right?
According to the American Pregnancy Association, the general rule of thumb for those with an average pre-pregnancy BMI is a steady weight gain of 25-35 pounds over the course of your pregnancy (2). But ultimately, how much weight you need to gain during pregnancy is related to how much you weighed going into pregnancy, so be sure to discuss your individual needs with your healthcare provider and come up with a weight gain plan that works best for you.
All in all though, getting extra calories as a pregnant vegan won’t be difficult.
When choosing a vegan diet for pregnancy, chances are concerned family members have brought up the “protein problem.” But here’s the thing: there is no problem getting protein on a plant-based diet, even when you’re pregnant.
During the first trimester, you actually don’t need any additional protein.
In the second and third trimesters, you’ll generally need an additional 28 grams of protein a day.
This may sound like a lot, but the truth is, you didn’t actually need all that much protein to start with (here’s a handy protein calculator to help you figure out your individual requirements). And chances are, you were already exceeding your protein needs. Did you know plant-based and meat eaters alike get about 70% more daily protein than their bodies need (3)?
See, no protein problem here. (It’s actually pretty difficult to become protein deficient!)
Whew! That’s a load off.
Even more good news: the additional 28 grams of protein a day is really easy to get on a plant-based diet.
beans and lentils
nuts and seeds
whole food veggie burgers, like the MamaSezz High Protein Burger
even spinach and broccoli
Another common concern when discussing any diet for pregnancy: calcium and Vitamin D. And there’s good reason for concern; both of these are important for growing baby’s bones and teeth, as well as for preserving mom’s bone stores. But if you’re not eating dairy, can you get enough?
First off, you don’t actually need any more calcium now that you’re pregnant than you did before because the efficiency of calcium absorption increases during pregnancy (3). Pregnant bodies are amazing, aren't’ they?!
Women aged 19-50 need about 1,000 mg/day of calcium either way, which you can absolutely get while vegan and pregnant.
collard greens, frozen — 360 mg in 1 cup
broccoli rabe — 200 mg in 1 cup
kale — 180 mg in 1 cup
soybeans — 175 mg in 1 cup
bok choy — 160 mg in 1 cup
figs, dried — 32.5 mg per fig
broccoli — 60 mg in 1 cup
oranges — 55 mg in 1 orange
Vitamin D and calcium work together. Calcium helps your body build and maintain bones and Vitamin D helps you absorb the calcium so it can do its job.
The best way to get Vitamin D? Sunshine and diet. About 10-30 minutes a day of safe sun exposure.
When it comes to getting Vitamin D from food, you can add mushrooms (grown outside) to your menu. If you’re worried your Vitamin D levels are low, talk with your healthcare provider to get a blood test and come up with a plan (supplementation may be on the table in this case).
DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, is important for heart health, vision, and reducing inflammation. And when you’re pregnant, it’s essential for baby’s brain development. We don’t actually make any omega-3 fatty acids on our own so we have to eat them. Our bodies then make DHA from the “short-chain” omega-3 fatty acids that we eat.
Many people think of fish when they hear omega-3s, but eating a lot of fish isn’t recommended in a diet for pregnancy, due to the high mercury levels in fish and the neurological damage mercury poses to the developing brain of the fetus. And if you’re a pregnant vegan, well then fish is off the table entirely...so where can you get your Omega-3s?
Flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. It’s recommended for adults to consume, per day, about 2-3 Tablespoons of ground flax seed, about 2 Tbsp of chia seeds, or ¼ cup walnuts to get appropriate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
(Psst...one of our favorite ways to eat walnuts is our MamaSezz Walnut Taco "Meat." Seriously...so good!)
And while you can get Omega-3s (and consequently, make DHA) by eating plant-based foods, pregnant vegans may consider supplementing to ensure they get 200mg of preformed DHA from an uncontaminated source, like algae oil (4).
If plant-based eating is so healthy, why take prenatal vitamins? Ultimately, that’s a decision between you and your healthcare team. But here are 5 reasons you may take prenatal vitamins during your vegan pregnancy, even if you’re diet is well-rounded.
You can get plenty of iron on a plant-based diet by loading up on beans, darky leafy greens, dried fruits, sweet potatoes, nuts and seeds, even blackstrap molasses! (And to help your body absorb all this iron, be sure to up your Vitamin C intake with these vegan foods.) But during the second half of pregnancy, no matter which diet for pregnancy they’re following, many women still choose to supplement iron because their needs increase substantially due to higher blood volume, fetal development, and possible blood loss during delivery. This is where a prenatal comes in handy.
Pro tip: Take your prenatal with food and plenty of water because iron supplements can make you feel nauseated (on top of morning sickness -- what the heck!?).
Folate is a B-vitamin that’s super important during pregnancy, especially that first trimester, as it helps prevent neural tube defects in the fetus. Research shows that well-nourished pregnant vegans are getting plenty of folate from their diet (5), which makes sense because there’s plenty of folate-rich plant-based foods, like beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, and asparagus. That said, be sure to discuss with your healthcare provider about whether supplementation is necessary in your individual case.
Iodine is an important naturally-occurring element that helps our thyroid gland function properly. And while severe deficiencies aren’t common anymore, iodine intake is on the downward trend as folks are more conscientious about their sodium consumption and limit the use of table salt (which is fortified with iodine). Reducing sodium is generally a good thing for reduced cardiovascular risk, but pregnant women in America tend to come up just short of the iodine recommendations from the American Thyroid Association.
Does this borderline iodine insufficiency in pregnant women matter? Right now, the research is inconclusive, but plant-based nutrition expert Dr. Michael Greger recommends ensuring iodine is in your prenatal vitamin to be safe (6).
Zinc is a mineral that’s excellent for baby’s brain development and for mom’s immune system. Similar to folate, you may already be getting enough zinc from your plant-based diet if you’re eating plenty of legumes, raw nuts and seeds, miso, and whole grains. But like many things, zinc needs increase during pregnancy, regardless of which diet for pregnancy you’re following so check in with your healthcare provider about whether you need a prenatal vitamin that includes zinc.
If there’s one supplement for plant-based eaters to take, it’s probably B-12.
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that aids in the health of our nerve and blood cells. It also prevents megaloblastic anemia. The reason vegans need to supplement B12 comes down to modern farming practices. B12 is a vitamin made by bacteria found in the soil. It is also found in the guts of animals. (Humans no longer produce B12 in the gut.)
Because vegans don’t eat meat, and we all wash the soil from our vegetables, many plant-based nutrition experts recommend a B12 supplement.
As a pregnant vegan, your body actually absorbs B12 more efficiently, but your baby’s demands for B12 are high (it helps with growth and development), so supplementation is often still suggested.
In the end, if you’re not sure you’re getting enough of one nutrient you can always have your levels checked by your healthcare provider and come up with a plan that fits your needs.