“Congratulations on your pregnancy! But you’re vegan, right? I think you should consider including milk and meat in your diet. At least for these nine months …” Sounds familiar? You’re not alone.
Although attitudes towards plant-based diets have come a long way, many people consider vegan diets to be adequate for adults but it’s a totally different story when it comes to pregnant women. Rest assured, you do not have to become a meat-eater just because you’re pregnant. With a little bit of planning, a vegan diet can meet both your baby’s nutrient requirements and your own.
Read on to debunk myths about vegan pregnancy and steel yourself against questions that may frighten you into thinking “What if my vegan diet is harming my little one?”
Myth 1: It is not possible to gain the recommended amount of weight on a vegan diet during pregnancy.
The recommended weight gain during pregnancy depends on your pre-pregnancy weight. Based on the recommendations of the British Dietetic Association (BDA), you should gain about:
- 19kg if you were underweight;
- 12kg if you started pregnancy with a normal weight;
- 6kg if you were overweight.
It is true that many vegans are slender and usually gain weight quite slowly during pregnancy. If this is your case, here’s how to increase your calorie intake in a healthy way:
Eat more often
Have 3 main meals and 3 snacks.
Choose healthy foods higher in fat and lower in bulk
Try avocado salads; drizzle your veggies or hummus with a generous serving of olive oil; savour some peanut butter or full fat spread with your whole grain toasts.
Drink extra calories
Treat yourself to a smoothie made of soy milk/ tofu/ soy yoghurt with any fruit of your choice. Sprinkle with some sliced Brazil nuts or flax seeds before serving. You can also add a little bit of pure organic honey (provided your blood sugar levels are in check).
If, on the other hand, you’re gaining weight too fast, inform your healthcare provider and start keeping a food journal. Indulging in too many sweets or high-fat foods? Switch to fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and legumes for a more moderate weight gain.
Myth 2: It is hard for an expecting vegan woman to meet her protein needs.
That’s a common one because many people are unaware that there are amazing sources of protein in the plant kingdom. Anyways, protein needs only increase by about 25grams during pregnancy for a total amount of approximately 70grams per day; an amount that most vegan women already consume prior to pregnancy.
What’s in 25 grams of plant protein?
1 ½ cups of legumes (lentils, beans, peas) or tofu, 2 ½ cups of soy milk or 2 large bagels. This being said, you do not need to count your protein grams: simply include a variety of foods in your daily diet since most foods contain some protein.
What about essential amino acids?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and their availability in foods differ. Since plant foods do not contain the complete set of essential amino acids, make sure to vary your intake of protein-containing foods: legumes, soy foods (tofu, tempeh, edamame), seitan, meat substitutes (plant-based crumbles or veggie burgers with zero trans-fats or hydrogenated fats), nuts, seeds (chia, flax, pumpkin), grains (wild or brown rice, millet, quinoa), cereals (amaranth, buckwheat, wheat), bread and vegetables (spinach, broccoli, artichokes).
Myth 3: Vegan mothers and their unborn child cannot get adequate calcium as dairy products are the only rich sources of calcium.
Since many plant foods are rich in calcium, it is unlikely that you will suffer any deficiency. Moreover, studies suggest that the expecting mother’s body adapts to increased calcium requirements by augmenting calcium absorption and diminishing calcium excretion.
However, make a special effort to consume 8 or more servings of calcium-rich foods daily — green, leafy vegetables, broccoli, bokchoy, almonds, calcium-set tofu, and molasses. You may also consider calcium-fortified foods: specific brands of veggie or fruit blends; breakfast cereals; protein bars; margarine; soy, rice or almond milks.
Vitamin D supplements are recommended throughout pregnancy, regardless of your diet. Vitamin D containing foods include fortified products — certain brands of soy milk, orange juice and cereals.
Myth 4: Vegans are at risk of iron-deficiency anaemia.
Even non-vegan and non-vegetarian pregnancies can be complicated by anaemia due to increased iron needs of pregnancy. Discuss with your healthcare provider about the needs for iron supplements.
Remember: even if you’re taking an iron supplement, make sure to consume enough iron rich foods (leafy greens, legumes, tofu, tempeh, grains and cereals) with a food rich in vitamin C (citrus fruits, bell peppers or tomatoes) to enhance iron absorption. Try baked beans in home-made tomato sauce and eat loads of broccoli and bokchoy as these are good sources of both vitamin C and iron.
How to make iron supplements more effective
Avoid taking them with any calcium supplement, tea or coffee as this would significantly reduce iron absorption; take them in between meals for enhanced absorption and to prevent stomach pains.
Some other important nutrients to consider
For optimal development of the nervous system — Check food labels for fortified products; a supplement may also be warranted.
For normal brain development — you can meet your iodine needs by adding about half a teaspoon of iodised salt to your diet. Sea vegetables are other options.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
A type of omega-3 that is important for brain and eye development of the foetus — you can consider a vegan DHA supplement produced from microalgae or foods such as flaxseed and oil, canola oil, walnuts, soy foods, leafy greens, papaya, avocado and fortified products.
For normal functioning of all body cells — found in broccoli, quinoa and soy foods.
It’s a great era to be vegan! Enjoy a healthy, varied diet and be active.
Gordon J (2013) Food Fact Sheet: Pregnancy (Accessed August 2013). British Dietetic Association.
Creighton C (2010) Vegetarian Diets in Pregnancy (Accessed August 2013). Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group.
Creighton C (2010) Vegetarian/Vegan Myths (Accessed August 2013). Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group.