Is it safe to follow a vegan diet when pregnant?
Long read: The 9 essential nutrients you need from preconception to birth
By Riya Lakhani BSc MSc ANutr
Riya Lakhani BSc MSc ANutr is a plant-based registered nutritionist. She is the author of the e-book Preconception to Birth: Your Nutrition Guide to Staying Healthy. Here’s a summary of the key points from the book – the nine nutrients you need as a vegan mother – from preconception through to birth.
The book is a low-down on maintaining healthy levels of nutrition on a plant-based diet before and during pregnancy.
For those who are already vegan, considering going plant-based or simply want to learn about eating optimally during pregnancy, here’s the important information you need for a healthy pregnancy, baby and a healthier happier you.
Is a vegan diet safe to follow during pregnancy?
Many people wonder if it’s safe to follow a vegan diet while pregnant. Many pregnant women on vegan diets are asked plenty of questions from well-intentioned friends and family members (possibly even complete strangers) about their diet.
Is a vegan diet safe to follow during pregnancy? Yes! Many mothers and would-be mothers will be relieved to know that it is absolutely possible and perfectly safe being vegan while pregnant as long as they pay special attention to your meals to ensure they get an adequate amount of the collection of nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy.
IN FACT – The British Dietetic Association, the professional registration body for dieticians across the United Kingdom, and the world’s largest organisation of nutrition professionals – the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – both agree that following a vegan diet is completely suitable for people of all ages – including during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Why is it important to manage nutrition, from preconception to birth?
Our health is directly influenced by our food choices. Since babies are essentially a product of the food their mothers eat during pregnancy, maintaining good levels of nutrition throughout pregnancy is essential. Although no one diet can ensure successful conception, general dietary recommendations can help you enter pregnancy in the healthiest environment possible.
KEY POINT – Since not all pregnancies are planned, it’s best to adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle as early as possible. In the case of baby planning, the ideal time for a woman to evaluate her preconception needs is three to six months before trying to conceive.
The consequences of poor nutrition
At the time of conception, your levels of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) influences embryonic and foetal growth. Mums with a history of poor nutrition before pregnancy have lower nutrient stores for the growing baby to feed on and can lead to growth and development problems.
What’s even more worrying is that scientists believe even after pregnancy, poor levels of nutrition through pregnancy could even reprogramme the foetal tissue in an unfavourable way. This could leave the infant at risk of developing chronic illnesses later in life. That is why following a good nutrition plan before and during pregnancy is really important because it can ultimately help prepare your body for a healthy pregnancy, improve fertility and lower the risk of birth defects.
A large amount of the required vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids you need for preconception and pregnancy can be easily found in your food. But in preparation for the physiological changes that pregnancy brings, it’s a great idea to check that you are getting enough of the essential 9 nutrients for pregnancy and preconception recommended in this guide. You should consider making healthy changes at least 3 months before conception.
Nutrient #1 Folic Acid (Vitamin B9)
Folic acid is usually the first vitamin that is recommended if you are planning on having a baby. In the early weeks of pregnancy, the embryo’s neural tube, spine and nervous system are beginning to develop. Low levels of folic acid can lead to severe birth defects causing problems with the brain or spinal cord which includes spina bifida. Fortunately, ample folic acid before pregnancy, as well as the early days of pregnancy, can prevent many neural tube defects, reducing the risk of neural tube defects by up to 70 per cent!
KEY POINT – You may be familiar with the term folate- this is the natural form of folic acid and is found in foods. Folic acid is the synthetic supplement version.
Because folate is water-soluble, meaning it is not stored in the body for a long time, it’s really important to stay on top of your intake of this vitamin. All women including anyone considering pregnancy should be advised to maintain a folate-rich diet getting in at least 200 micrograms of folate a day. Women can usually reach 100 per cent of estimated folic acid requirements by consuming folate-rich foods such as spinach, kale, broccoli, legumes and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, bread, refined grain products, pasta and rice.
Since folate is a water-soluble vitamin it dissolves easily in water and over-cooking folate rich vegetables can reduce its available folate content. This problem can be reduced by steaming or microwaving instead of boiling.
Even if you are following a healthy diet with plenty of folate, if you are considering having a baby, it is recommended that you take a 400-microgram supplement of folic acid every day for two to three months before you conceive and you should carry on taking it until you are 12 weeks pregnant. Some women may require a higher dose of folic acid but this is something your health care provider can discuss with you.
Foods Rich in Folate (approx.)
|Nutritional Yeast, 5g||220mcg|
|Soya Beans, 70g||218mcg|
|Brussels sprouts, 90g||99mcg|
|Spinach, cooked, 90g||82mcg|
|Kale, boiled, 95g||82mcg|
|Rocket, raw, 80g||70mcg|
Nutrient #2 Iron
You probably know that iron is an important nutrient to start thinking about taking while trying to conceive. The reason why you need to manage iron effectively is because it’s an important component of haemoglobin which carries oxygen around the body in red blood cells. When women menstruate, there is naturally an increased need for iron due to the blood loss. But during pregnancy, the body increases its blood volume by up to 50 per cenr to supply the placenta and foetus and so the demand for iron increases dramatically over pregnancy.
Because the body cannot produce its own iron, it needs to be supplied from the food that we eat. Iron can be found in lots of different foods, but the rate it’s absorbed in our bodies can vary. Iron can be found in two different forms: heme and non-heme.
Heme is found in animal products and is typically absorbed better than the non-heme version found in plant-based foods. This means that iron levels should be closely monitored when eating vegan. This is simple to do when you are aware of the foods that are especially high in iron along with a helpful dose of vitamin C! By pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C, the absorption of non-heme iron is increased by about six-fold!
You should aim to get at least 15mg of iron per day over the preconception stage and throughout pregnancy. Maintaining healthy levels of iron will help to improve postnatal recovery, reduce the impact of blood loss at delivery and avoid a reduced breast milk supply associated with anaemia.
Foods Rich in Iron (approx.)
|Breakfast cereals, fortified||18mg|
|Soybeans, 1 cup||8.8mg|
|White beans, canned, 1 cup||8mg|
|Dark Chocolate, 45%-69%, 3 oz||7mg|
|Lentils, boiled, 1 cup||6.6mg|
|Black-eyed peas, 1 cup||5.2mg|
|Tofu, ½ cup||3mg|
|Houmous, ½ cup||3mg
|Tahini, 2 tbsp||2.6mg|
Nutrient #3 Omega 3s
Taking optimum amounts of omega-3 before 3-6 months before pregnancy, allows the body to build up its stores in preparation for the early development of the baby’s brain, eyes and nervous system. As omega-3 is used right from the get go in pregnancy, a great way to top your prenatal essential fatty acids stores is by consuming rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids on a regular basis. The European Food Safety Authority suggests an intake of 250mg per day and you can get your dose of omega-3 from avocados, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds and walnuts. Over the preconception period and through pregnancy itis important to consider a DHA supplement (short for docosahexaenoic acid) a type of omega-3 fatty acid derived from algae due to the important role of omega-3 fats in brain health.
A convenient, sure-fire way of getting enough Omega 3 into your system from the very start is to take a high-quality algae and ahiflower oil such as Wiley’s Finest CatchFree in either liquid or softgel formats. The oil derived from both algae offers marine-based omega 3s directly, but in a fish-free format; ideal for vegans.
Ahiflower is a regenerative British crop that is great for pollinators such as bees and butterflies. A daily dose of CatchFree liquid delivers 2300 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids per serving including 500mg of DHA Omega 3 in each teaspoon. Available online from wileysfinest.co.uk
Omega-3 Foods Rich in Omega-3 (approx.)
|Chia seeds, 2 tbsp||5g|
|Walnuts, 1 oz||2.5g|
|Canola oil, 1tbsp||1.28g|
|Soybeans, 1 cup||1.03g|
|Tofu, firm, 115g||0.66g|
|Brussels sprouts, 1 cup||0.27g|
|Kidney beans, ½ cup||0.10g|
|Baked beans, ½ cup||0.07g|
Nutrient #4 Iodine
Iodine plays an important role during pregnancy as it plays an essential role in healthy cell division, cell metabolism, growth, development, and normal foetal brain development. So, it is important to ensure you have an adequate amount of iodine before you enter pregnancy. If iodine levels are severely low, it can cause improper function of the thyroid gland which could lead to infertility and could even harm the foetus by causing stunted growth, intellectual disability and even delayed sexual development. The recommended allowance at the preconception stage and throughout pregnancy is 150 micrograms per day.
DID YOU KNOW – Even a small deficiency of iodine in pregnant women can increase the risk for lower IQ and reduced brain function.
Because the body cannot make its own iodine, it’s really important that we get enough iodine from the foods that we eat. Many people meet their iodine requirements from consuming milk and dairy products and being vegan can put you at a higher risk of iodine deficiency. However, as a vegan, you can easily increase your iodine levels by consuming iodised salt in cooking and at the table. You can also increase your iodine levels by eating potato skins, prunes and sea vegetables like kelp and nori. In fact, one of the best sources of iodine is seaweed! It’s important to note that too much iodine can be harmful, especially if you have an underlying thyroid disorder. If you are not meeting the recommended allowance, you may need to take an iodine supplement and you should aim to begin supplementation at least 3-6 months before conception.
Foods Rich in Iodine (approx.)
|Dried kelp, 7g||3,170mcg|
|Iodised salt, 1/4 tsp||71 mcg|
|Fortified Bread, 2 slices||45mcg|
|Prunes, 5 dried||13mcg|
|Lima Beans, boiled, ½ cup||8mcg|
|Bread, 1 slice||5mcg|
Nutrient #5 Choline (Vitamin B4)
Choline is a nutrient that has captured scientists’ attention in recent years. This ‘brain-building’ nutrient has now been given special attention by paediatricians and health practitioners alike in order to ensure that pregnant women are getting enough of it.
During pregnancy, choline is vital for tissue expansion and has a protective role in the development of the foetal brain. Since our liver can only make a small amount of this nutrient, it’s important to get choline from your diet to avoid a deficiency. One of the problems for vegans is that most sources of choline are found in meat and dairy products. However, you can still find a healthy amount of choline in nuts, soybeans, whole grains and cruciferous vegetables.
DID YOU KNOW… In the UK, choline is not yet included in the food composition database and this means that there are no official recommendations. The European Food Safety Authority suggests that anywhere between 400mg-480mg per day is adequate for pregnant women.
Foods Rich in Choline (approx.)
|Soybeans, roasted, ½ cup||107mg|
|Broccoli, cooked, 1 cup||63mg|
|Potatoes, red, 1 large potato||57mg|
|Wheat germ, toasted, 1 oz||51mg|
|Kidney Beans, canned, ½ cup||45mg|
|Quinoa, cooked, 1 cup||43mg|
|Brussels sprouts, boiled, ½ cup||32mg|
|Peas, boiled, ½ cup||24mg
Nutrient #6 Calcium
Preparing for pregnancy includes healthy bones. If there isn’t enough calcium in the diet, the developing foetus absorbs the calcium straight from the mother’s skeleton and this can put women at a higher risk for developing bone disorders like osteoporosis later in life.
You want to aim to get around 700mg-1,000mg of calcium per day over the preconception period. Since your body is more efficient at absorbing calcium during pregnancy, your calcium requirements over pregnancy remain the same at 700mg-1,000mg per day. Getting this amount on a vegan diet is simple if you are eating plenty of leafy greens, vegetables, beans, tofu, fortified soya milks and nuts – basically all the good stuff!
Foods Rich in Calcium (approx.)
|Tofu, uncooked, 100g||350mg|
|Fortified bread, 2 slices||242mg|
|Plant-Based Milk, 200ml||240mg|
|Kale, cooked, 80g||185mg|
|Spinach, cooked, 80g||120mg|
|Fortified Soya Yoghurt, 125g||150mg|
|Dried Figs, 30g||75mg|
|Chia Seeds, 1tbsp||69mg|
Nutrient #7 Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps calcium keep your bones and teeth healthy and strong and deficiency in vitamin D during pregnancy can lead to deformed teeth and bones and other problems in newborns. It can be challenging to get enough vitamin D when eating vegan since many of the foods containing the highest amounts of vitamin D are animal-based. The good news is that you can get your daily dose of vitamin D through sun exposure, fortified foods and plant-based milks as well as mushrooms. You could also consider supplements during pregnancy to ensure you are getting at least the recommended 10 micrograms per day (400 IU).
Wiley’s Finest CatchFree Omega-3 Liquid, as well as delivering vital doses of Omega 3 DHA for the brain and overall health from head to heart for both mother and baby, also delivers 25 micrograms of vitamin D3 in a natural mango-flavoured liquid. Available online from wileysfinest.co.uk
Nutrient #8 Vitamin B12
Vegan diets are naturally devoid of vitamin B12 as this vitamin is made by micro-organisms (not by plants). In regards to pregnancy, low concentrations of vitamin B12 during the first trimester is a risk factor for neural tube defects. To ensure you get at least the recommended allowance of 1.5 micrograms per day, increase your intake of vitamin B12 fortified vegan foods, such as cereals, vegan spreads and nutritional yeast flakes as well as fortified plant-based milks. If you are unable to meet the requirements through fortified foods, you will need to add a vitamin B12 supplement to your regime.
Nutrient #9 Zinc
In order for healthy cell growth and development to occur in your baby’s growing body, you need to get plenty of zinc. Low zinc concentrations could lead to prolonged labour, preterm labour, stillbirth and post-term deliveries. Since your baby relies on this mineral to support its growth, a healthy intake of zinc derived from your diet is essential. Women of childbearing age are advised to take at least 7mg of zinc per day.
However, for those following a vegan diet, you should ensure that you are consuming plenty of zinc rich food. This is because plant-based foods such as legumes, unrefined cereals, seeds and nuts contain compounds called phytates which reduce the absorption of zinc.
Foods Rich in Zinc (approx.)
|Baked beans, canned, ½ cup||2.9mg|
|Pumpkin seeds, 28g||2.2mg|
|Brown rice, cooked, 1 cup||1.9mg|
|Tofu, firm, 100g||1.7mg|
|Lentils, 3/4 cup||1.6mg|
|Chickpeas, cooked, ½ cup||1.3mg|
|Kidney beans, cooked, ½ cup||0.9mg|
So there you have it – the evidence to enable you to argue with the naysayers to show that, with a little planning, it is perfectly healthy to enjoy a plant-based pregnancy – all the way from preconception to birth.
Riya Lakhani has a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Human Health and a Masters in Clinical Nutrition. The above information is taken from Riya Lakhani’s book “Preconception to Birth: Your Nutrition Guide to Staying Healthy” available for £4.99 from RevitalisewithRiya.com.