If you’re following a vegan diet, you may wonder if you have to change your eating patterns during pregnancy. Can you really fulfill your growing baby’s needs without milk and meat? The answer is yes. Research shows that a well-planned vegan diet is safe and appropriate during pregnancy.
The key words here? “Well planned.” If your diet is made up of bagels and french fries, it won’t contain the nutrients required by your body and your baby. But armed with the right information, you can plan a vegan diet that meets all of your nutritional requirements.
Sari Kives, an ob-gyn at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, says pregnancy complications aren’t an issue with vegan diets. “I don’t think vegan pregnancies are more complicated or that you have to worry about any perinatal outcomes due to diet,” she says.
The basic vegan diet is the same as the recommended plate for any Canadian: vegetables, whole grains and protein. But vegan diets are entirely plant-based, which means there’s no meat, dairy or eggs. Instead, vegans can choose from these protein sources (protein content is for one cup unless otherwise stated):
Your diet should include 25 to 30 grams of plant-based protein at each meal. Ottawa-based dietitian Susan Macfarlane says she isn’t concerned about protein intake for her vegan clients as long as they’re getting enough calories and protein at each meal.
“If you’re vegan, you need to think about the nutrients you’re not getting from food and then supplement accordingly,” says Kives. As with all women, she recommends that vegans take a prenatal multivitamin, and there are vegan options that contain no animal ingredients.
Vegans often lack vitamin B12, which is found in meat, poultry and eggs. Since a vitamin B12 deficiency can cause pre-eclampsia, preterm delivery and low birth weight, it’s vital to get enough. Vegan sources include nutritional yeast (a flaky savoury condiment) and fortified plant beverages. But Macfarlane says that B12 supplements should still be taken because a vegan diet often falls short. Aim for at least 2.6 micrograms every day.
You need 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day when pregnant to form the foundation of your baby’s bones. Vegans don’t consume dairy, but they can get calcium from sesame seeds, almonds, leafy greens, beans and fortified plant beverages. “Vegan women are advised to include at least one cup of plant milk a day in their diet, along with alternative sources of calcium,” says Macfarlane. Not sure if you’re getting enough? Use this calcium calculator to find out.
“The omega-3 fat DHA is important for fetal brain and eye development, especially starting in the second trimester,” says Macfarlane. DHA is mostly found in fish, and the best vegan source is algae-based DHA supplements. “All vegan women should include a source of DHA,” says Macfarlane. “At least 200 to 500 milligrams per day is recommended.” Eating flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts can help, too—they contain a type of omega-3 fat that the body can convert to DHA in small amounts.
Kives checks the iron levels of her vegan patients as part of her protocol. “We want to ensure that women have iron stores going into pregnancy to prevent anemia,” she says. Pregnant women require 27 milligrams of iron each day, but vegans require almost double that—about 45 milligrams a day. Good sources include beans, lentils, nuts, leafy greens and fortified cereals. Pair any of these with a source of vitamin C, such as sweet peppers and berries, to boost iron absorption. Supplements are usually required.
If all of this meal planning seems a bit overwhelming, check with a dietitian to make sure that you’ve covered all of the basics.
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom runs Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto. She is a writer, cookbook author and mom of two.