Vegan Pregnancy: Is It Safe?
Pregnant women following a vegan or vegetarian diet is somewhat of a controversial subject. Some health care providers are worried that mothers may not get enough nutrients to pass onto their growing baby, while others maintain that a healthy vegan diet still leads to a healthy child. The debate can lead to many questions: Is it safe to entertain a vegan pregnancy? Is raising a vegan baby safe? How can my baby and I be healthy without eating animal products?
If you’re a vegan who is pregnant or plans on becoming pregnant, this post will help clear your confusion. The information below outlines general recommendations and considerations; however, you should always consult your doctor to see what’s right for you.
Vegan VS. Vegetarian Pregnancy: What’s the Difference?
Vegetarians and vegans do not consume meat. The difference is that vegans do not consume any animal byproducts, whereas vegetarians do. Animal byproducts include anything with dairy, animal fat, honey or eggs. While it may seem simple, these ingredients are in many unsuspecting foods. For example, gelatin — an animal product — is found in Jell-O, marshmallows and gummy candies and therefore is not eaten by vegans. Many breads also contain milk. Some vegans also make lifestyle changes such as avoiding any product tested on animals or made with animal byproducts.
Is a Vegan Pregnancy Safe?
A 1987 study conducted by The Farm, a community that honors vegan diets, concluded that it’s possible for a woman to have a normal pregnancy on a vegan diet. Whether the mother got her protein from animal or vegetable sources didn’t seem to affect their birth weight. However, the study of 775 women noted that vegans should be health conscious and use supplements such as prenatal vitamins, iron and calcium.
There might be an added bonus to following a vegan diet while pregnant: You may have a reduced risk of Preeclampsia — a pregnancy disorder characterized by high blood pressure and fluid retention.
A recent 2015 study also concluded that vegan-vegetarian diets may be considered safe during pregnancy if nutritional requirements are met. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of research in this area.
Long story short: It’s healthy to follow a vegan diet while pregnant as long as you get the proper nutrients. However, having a vegan pregnancy may not be as “easy” as having a “normal” pregnancy. Below are a few points you should take into account to keep you and your baby healthy.
Vegan Pregnancy Proteins
During pregnancy, you should be eating around 60 grams or more of protein each day. Many vegans already achieve this, but if you’re someone who typically eats carb-centered meals, it’s time to change your habits. A reason many people think vegan pregnancy is risky is because they think it’s hard to meet protein requirements. However, protein isn’t just in meat; it’s also in many plant-based foods, so getting your daily intake isn’t too hard.
Sources of vegan protein include:
- Nut butter
- Seeds (such as hemp or chia seeds)
- Soy milk
- Vegan protein powder
- Green peas
- Brown rice
With all the milk commercials repeating that “milk gives you calcium to build strong bones,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise that calcium requirements during vegan pregnancy can be a cause of concern. Despite this common worry, calcium from dairy milk is actually harder to absorb, making some vegan foods a better source.
The need for calcium does not increase during pregnancy and stays at 1,000 milligrams a day. Because vegans don’t drink cow’s milk, they should become more aware of their calcium intake during pregnancy.
Your baby can grow strong bones if you consume calcium-rich foods such as:
- Leafy green vegetables
If you’re getting your daily allowance of vegan protein, it’s likely that you already eat many of these foods. There are many reasons to limit your caffeine intake during pregnancy and we’ll give you another one: It may affect calcium absorption.
A woman’s body demands more iron when she is pregnant because of an increase in blood volume for the baby. This means that if you already have low iron levels, they will likely get even lower during pregnancy. It’s common for even meat-eating mothers to become iron deficient. For this reason, it’s recommended that pregnant women take an iron supplement — for vegans, this would be a non-heme iron supplement. If iron supplements cause unpleasant side effects, such as stomach issues, you should closely monitor your intake through food sources.
Although some meats are a good source of iron, many vegan foods can also fulfill your requirement:
- Soy Milk
- Fortified cereals
When you eat vegan sources of protein, you’re consuming non-heme iron. Non-heme iron should be consumed with vitamin C, such as an orange or glass of orange juice, to help absorption.
Vitamin D Requirements
Some vegans may struggle with getting their daily allowance of vitamin D since it’s not found in high amounts in vegan foods. Without enough vitamin D, your baby could have bone growth problems.
While hanging out in the sun is a good way to get your vitamin D, cold weather and our daily working lifestyles may prevent us from exposure. Fortified foods such as cereals or soy milk may contain vitamin D; however, you’re probably better off taking a vitamin D supplement.
Prenatal Supplements for Vegans
Just like all pregnant women, vegans should also take prenatal vitamins. One of the most important supplements is folic acid. Taking folic acid will help prevent birth defects such as brain and spinal cord issues. The recommended amount is 400 micrograms daily and increases to 500 micrograms while breastfeeding.
Vegan Pregnancy Weight Gain
Women who are pregnant typically gain weight fairly quickly. However, vegans may be smaller and may gain baby weight too slowly. Women who are underweight should ideally try to gain weight before they become pregnant. It can be tempting to chow down on sweets or unhealthy carbs such as breads or pastas, but try to limit those foods. Instead, gain weight the healthy way by eating foods with healthy fats and calories. This includes plenty of nuts, nut butters, avocados or fruits. To see if you are at a healthy weight before pregnancy, you can use a BMI calculator.
Dietitians for Vegan Pregnancies
When you start going for prenatal appointments, tell your doctor that you follow a vegan diet so that he or she can monitor your health appropriately.
The information above provided general recommendations and points you should consider if you’re a pregnant vegan. However, each woman is different. If it seems difficult to implement the above diet, you may want to consult a dietitian. A dietitian will take into consideration your needs, preferences and food restrictions. He or she will be able to recommend specific foods and diet plans to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients necessary for a healthy baby.
Is a Vegan Diet Safe for Babies?
If you follow a vegan diet, it’s likely that you plan to raise your child as a vegan as well. Vegan babies and children can grow up healthy if you are careful to feed them the right nutrients. It’s important that you discuss your options with your pediatrician to ensure you’re making the right decision for your baby’s health.
Many vegan mothers choose to breastfeed their babies because they see it as the most natural milk. You can also choose a soy milk formula; however, it will contain fewer calories and less fat. On the other hand, almond milk formula has adequate fat content but contains less protein.
As your baby grows, he or she can start eating pureed vegan foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans and chickpeas. However, it’s very important that the solid foods contain enough protein, calories, calcium and iron. You may choose to consult a dietitian at this stage.
It’s important to note that there has been a lot of recent controversy on this issue. In April 2016, a lawmaker in Italy proposed a bill that would make it illegal to feed kids a vegan diet. If passed, the diet would be seen as a form of domestic abuse and would have parents imprisoned. The legislation calls vegan diets “dangerous” and argues that parents don’t have enough knowledge to ensure their children are getting the correct nutrients.
Another option is to raise your baby on a vegetarian diet as opposed to a vegan diet. This way, he or she can consume regular baby formula and has more options for solid foods.
A 1989 study by The Farm investigated the growth of 404 vegetarian children aged 4 months to 10 years old. The children reached healthy heights and weights; however, their growth was modestly less than the US growth reference.
Are you following a vegan or vegetarian diet during pregnancy? If you are, comment below! We’d love to hear any tips or recommendations you may have. Be sure to share this article with your vegan and vegetarian friends, too!