I’ve been excited to write this post! Before getting pregnant, I was very well-versed and studied in adult vegan nutrition but I hadn’t spent much time learning about nutritional needs during pregnancy. This post will be helpful for you whether you are vegan or not since many of the recommendations are the same.
Resources I Recommend for Vegan Pregnancy
First, the majority of my references come from these three books. I recommend you pick at least one of them up to have as a resource.
- Your Complete Vegan Pregnancy by Reed Mangels, PhD, RD (1)
- Disease-Proof Your Child by Joel Furhman, MD (2)
- Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis, RD and Vesanto Melina MS, RD. p. 283-309 (3)
- Information from the Vegan Pregnancy and Childhood Module in the eCornell Plant-Based Certification Course I completed. Modules on this topic taught by Jackie Busse, MD (coming on the podcast very soon) and Padma Garvey, MD. (4)
- Why You Should Avoid Fish During and Before Pregnancy via NutritionFacts.org
There’s additional information in these books about breastfeeding and childhood that I found very useful and highly recommend. For the purposes of this post, I will stick solely to prenatal nutrition.
Nutritional Recommendations for Vegan Pregnant Women
First, there are general recommendations for pregnant women that apply to everyone. If you are initially thinking a vegan diet is dangerous for pregnant people, first notice that the majority of recommendations are to avoid many animal products and very few plant foods. I avoided cold-pressed juices and sprouts. Sprouts are fine if you grow them yourself. I avoided a bunch of the herbal teas I was drinking pre-pregnancy (too bad, I LOVE licorice tea) as well as melatonin. While the general recommendation for caffeine is capped at 182-200mg of caffeine, I stayed under that with one americano I made at home in the morning, limited amounts of chocolate, and no caffeinated sports nutrition products.
Here are common nutritional considerations.
Note that most of these considerations are also standard for any diet. Anyone who is pregnant will find this useful although all of the recommendations of foods to eat for more vitamins and minerals here are plant-based sources. The only ones that you need a higher amount as a vegan compared to a non-vegan are Vit B12 (a slight increased) and also iron and protein due to absorption.
Short of it:
Eat these foods every day and some at as many meals as you can: beans, legumes (like lentils, soy, navy beans), ground flax, hemp seeds, fortified plant milks, whole grains, leafy greens, tofu and tempeh, citrus fruits, bell peppers, walnuts, almonds, broccoli.
- Folate/Folic Acid. Note that Folate is natural and it’s what you get naturally from food. Folic Acid is synthetic- what you get from supplements and fortified foods. There’s some controversy around taking folic acid as a supplement. Folic acid was in my prenatal vitamin as a precaution. However, a whole foods plant-based diet has a lot of folate in it! It’s found naturally in leafy greens, citrus fruits, and beans. Folate/Folic Acid is not a vegan specific concern but a general consideration and is found more prevalently in a WFPB diet. You need about 600 mcg as a pregnant woman.
- Vitamin B12. Something to pay attention to whether you are a pregnant vegan or not. It plays an important role in the development of the baby’s brain and nervous system. Vegans can get it from fortified foods like plant milks, fortified breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast. For pregnancy, you need to increase your intake from 2.4 to 2.6 micrograms, I never worried about this because I was taking a multi w/B12 and I was having plant milk almost daily.
- How much protein do I need? You need 25-28g more protein (nonvegetarians are recommended to get 25, vegan/vegetarians are recommended to get 28g because of the slightly lower digestibility of plant proteins, (3). I asked Brenda Davis if I needed to add this on top of the 1.2-1.5 g/kg I was adding on from the regular .8g/kg as an athlete. She told me no. I didn’t calculate protein intake during my pregnancy. I was a lot more mindful that I had a legume, tempeh, tofu at every meal (except for weekday oatmeal breakfast, but my breakfast is a high protein meal as is!) and that I increased the portion of it. Protein has never been something I’ve stressed over. Also, if you are generally eating more calories from WFPB sources, your protein intake is likely to naturally increase.
- Caloric Intake? Your caloric intake needs to increase by 15-20 percent. Usually around 300-450 extra calories per day in the second and third trimesters respectively. What about if you’re exercising a couple of hours a day on top of that? I was worried about this initially and talked to my midwife. She told me the baby will take what he needs first, and I’ll get what is leftover. That seemed to soothe my worries. Basically, I just eat when I’m hungry and make sure I’m very much limiting junk food and focusing on healthy meals. My regular breakfast is 1/2 cup steel-cut oats with hemp hearts, ground flax, berries, and maple syrup. I added a few walnuts and pumpkin seeds to both increase the calories, protein, and omega 3s. It doesn’t seem like I’ve increased my caloric intake too dramatically, but I also would say my intensity and number of hours spent training is reduced by 40-50%. Keeping my caloric intake similar or even slightly increased was more than enough. From a weight gain perspective, I was 129 lbs at 5’7″ before I got pregnant. At week 36, I’m 154 pounds and my uterus is measuring at the right size (about 36cm). I had a normal BMI pre-pregnancy and the recommended weight gain is 25-35 pounds by the end of pregnancy.
- Iron. Iron is the most widespread deficiency in the world (3) amongst the general population. Even outside of pregnancy, this can be a challenge for most people. I’m fortunate in that I haven’t had any issues with iron since going on a vegan diet. As a pregnant woman with any diet, you need to increase your intake because your body needs to increase its blood supply by 40-50% to deliver oxygen to the fetus. RDA for pregnant women is 27 mg of iron per day (50 percent more than pre-pregnancy). As a vegan, your needs are higher than a non-vegan because your iron source is a non-heme iron. The recommendation is about 45 mg per day during pregnancy for vegans. Absorption rate is not as good as heme iron. It’s also an important point to say that you can overdo it with heme iron because the only way to get rid of it is to bleed it out (4). Non-heme iron will not overabsorb and this has been thought to be a much healthier source of iron- think lack of toxicity and free radicals. How much? You need about 1.8 times as much iron if you’re going with non-heme iron. Having your dietary iron sources with vitamin C will help with absorption. Vegan diets from whole foods sources are naturally high in iron. Iron-rich foods also tend to be protein-rich as well: beans, lentils, soy, whole grains, seeds, leafy greens, blackstrap molasses, seaweed (and include vit c sources like bell peppers, citrus, tomatoes). Iron was also in my prenatal, but again, I never stressed about iron. You also absorb iron better during pregnancy which is pretty cool! (1)
- Zinc: Zinc is involved with cell replication. The RDA recommends increased from 8mg per day to 11 mg during pregnancy for both vegan and non-vegans. It’s easy to get from a vegan diet: seeds, nuts, legumes! (2)
- Iodine. This one came onto my radar pre-pregnancy because I realized I probably don’t get much iodine in general. You need it as a general part of your diet, but if you eat WFPB and no processed foods AND you use sea salt, you’re not getting much iodine. You can see if it’s in your prenatal, use iodized salt (although I hardly use salt in my diet anyway), add in kelp or seaweed which has iodine in it, or take an iodine supplement. I’ve never had a thyroid problem, but it was something I just noticed that I may not be getting. You really only need 1/4 tsp of iodized salt to get 46-76mg of iodine (3). You need 220 mcg (RDA) while pregnant.
- Calcium & Vitamin D. Vegan or not, pregnant or not, you need 1000 mg a day of Calcium. Good sources of vegan calcium are tofu, calcium fortified milk or OJ, low-oxalate greens like broccoli, collard greens, kale, almonds are a good source, dried figs, navy and soy beans. See a pattern? Something interesting is that your absorption rate of calcium increases during pregnancy (1) which is why you don’t need to increase your intake.
- DHA from algae sources. DHA is something that is important for brain health, even as a non-pregnant person. It’s also important to have higher levels of DHA while breastfeeding for the positive health benefits of your baby (3). How do you get DHA? DHA and EPA are synthesized from ALA from foods like flaxseeds, hemp, and walnuts although this topic is a bit controversial (1). A pregnant women’s body has an enhanced ability to synthesize DHA and the DHA is what allows baby to put on fat in late pregnancy. I take a 300 mg supplement daily from algae, and was doing this pre-pregnancy as well. I’ve seen 200-300mg of recommended DHA. What about fish oil if you’re a non-vegan? Fish oils can be contaminated with mercury and aren’t advised. Fish get their DHA from eating algae, they don’t just naturally have it.
My Personal Experience so Far (I’m in my 36th week right now)
The observations below are in reference to “common pregnancy symptoms.” I’m a sample size of 1, so in no way is it scientific that all people who eat plant-based will have the same results as me. These have been my observations and why I think I haven’t had the majority of the “negative” or “bothersome” pregnancy symptoms. The main symptoms I have had are extreme fatigue in the first trimester and end of the third trimester, very disturbed sleep during the entirety of my pregnancy – both insomnia (mostly due to stress of my sponsorships) and inability to stay asleep all night long, some pelvic pain/pubic symphysis pain during third trimester (aggravated by snow shoveling), and some diastasis recti that started around week 34. Overall, I’ve had it pretty easy compared to most.
Here are common symptoms I have NOT had or had very little of:
- Swelling? I haven’t experienced any swelling. As I type this, my rings are loose on my fingers. This includes 6-hour car rides and long plane rides. I am highly active, but I also think that eating a WFPB diet for the last 6+ years has something to do with this.
- Why do I think this is attributed to my diet? Your blood volume increases by 50%- that’s a lot more fluid for your veins and arteries to accommodate. If your cardiovascular system is super healthy, that means the endothelial lining of your vessels is really flexible and also allows for great blood flow. This is just my hypothesis but because eating a WFPB diet reverses heart disease (most people start forming heart disease as young as 5 from our diets), I think my venous return is better.
- Higher blood pressure? Not at all… my blood pressure did not change during pregnancy and maintained 100-105/65-70. Blood pressure can increase because of much higher blood volume having to squeeze through your veins and arteries. Based on my point of a healthy endothelium, an increase in blood pressure would be unlikely. You likely won’t have to worry about pre-eclampsia if you eat a WFPB diet.
- Morning Sickness? Super minimal nausea in the first trimester
- Gestational Diabetes? A WFPB is pretty much what they recommend if you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes. So no worries. One thing I will say is if you can get an alternative to the horrible drink they make you have at the lab, I would do that. The drink made me feel really nauseated.
- Food Cravings? I had food aversions to coconut and tahini in my first trimester. I also ate a LOT of fruit (like 10 pieces a day) in my first trimester. Other than that, I have had zero cravings. The only slightly funny thing is previous to pregnancy, I didn’t care about cold water. I want cold water all the time- cold water is the best thing ever. I also have had even less preferences for junk food and chocolate.
- Constipation? Nope. … zero change to my bowel movements. Again, I attribute this to the amount of fiber in my WFPB diet. My bowel movements have not changed at all during pregnancy.
- Restless legs or leg cramps. Minimal- in the last week, I have noticed a bit of cramping in my glutes with certain movements due to my pelvis changing.
- Heartburn? I had heartburn a grand total of 2 times.
- My caffeine intake? I have one double shot Americano in the morning and very occasionally I have a decaf if I want the taste of coffee. I do wish I could have more on the days I don’t sleep well. I also stopped all caffeinated sports nutrition products. I also realllly miss having a glass of wine. I have discovered the world of non-alcoholic craft beer which has been actually really good. I have a whole review of different NA Craft Beers here.
- Body Image? This one has been surprising. I thought I would have issues with seeing the number on the scale go up. I think I’ve maintained a healthy diet and I feel that the weight gain has been really healthy for the pregnancy. It’s weird to struggle walking up a hill, upstairs, or uphill on the bike but I feel fortunate I don’t have body image issues. If anything, I just wish my boobs weren’t so big. I can see a little bit of weight gain in my face at this point, but it’s nothing that makes me feel concerned. I think it’s kind of funny I’ve gained 25 lbs because aside from looking at my belly and boobs, I think I still look the same! I think being able to continue using my body has also been good for body image. Who knows how I will feel about all of this post-birth but for now, I’ll take it!
Contact me if you have any more questions about vegan nutrition or nutrition during pregnancy. I’m not a Registered Dietitian but as you can see, I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself.