More and more women are realising that a plant based diet is a healthy way to eat during pregnancy and that there’s no reason to stop being vegan just because you’re pregnant .
- Following a vegan diet during pregnancy is a positive way to help ensure your unborn baby is given the best start, as many of the well-known foods to avoid are naturally omitted, such as fish, raw milk and cheese, soft and blue cheeses, deli meats, luncheon meats, hot-dogs and under cooked meats . However, you must also take into account the food that you need to eat more of in order to give your baby all the nutrition they need.
- All vitamins and minerals are vital during pregnancy and eating a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, wholegrain products, beans, nuts and seeds virtually ensures that you’ll meet most of your nutrient needs (i). However, there are certain nutrients you need to be more aware of as a vegan. Vitamin B12, iodine, and choline are nutrients that vegan mothers should make sure they have a reliable supply of .
- The UK NHS recommends that all pregnant women take a supplement containing 400mcg of folic acid in the first trimester of pregnancy and 400 iu of Vitamin D, during the whole of pregnancy. Both of these and vitamin B12 can easily be obtained with this once daily supplement. 
Read on to find out more about these vital vitamins and minerals…
B12 protects the nervous system. Without it, permanent damage can result (e.g., blindness, deafness, dementia). Fatigue, and tingling in the hands or feet, can be early signs of deficiency.
Vitamin B12, like folate, is needed to help red blood cells divide. With B12 deficiency, their blood cells will fail to divide properly and they will become fatigued and suffer from macrocytic (aka megaloblastic) anaemia.
Luckily, vitamin B12 is made by bacteria such that it does not need to be obtained from animal products .
There are only two reliable sources of vitamin B12 for vegans: foods fortified with this nutrient, for example, fortified plant milks and yoghurts and B12 enriched nutritional yeast, which is grown on a B12-rich medium, and supplements .
Your baby’s nervous system develops before birth and in the first few months thereafter. Vitamin B12, folate, iodine, DHA (an essential fatty acid) and protein are all essential nutrients to assist with this, ensuring your baby has a healthy functioning nervous system.
Babies who have not yet built up their reserves of B12 MUST get adequate dietary vitamin B12. Without it, the infant can develop brain damage. When a breastfeeding mother is getting sufficient B12, her baby will receive enough through her milk.
In the UK, the NHS recommends around 1.5mcg per day for all adults aged 19 – 64. In the USA, the recommended intake of vitamin B12 for pregnant women is 2.6 mcg, and for nursing mothers it’s 2.8mcg.
Some good sources of Vitamin B12 include:
- Yeast extract (Vegemite, Marmite, etc.)
- Fortified nutritional yeast flakes
- Fortified cereals
- Fortified plant milks, yoghurts, etc.
A number of ways exist to get enough vitamin B12. One of, or a combination of, the following approaches are particularly recommended:
- Take a B12 supplement daily – A good quality vitamin or multi-vitamin that includes 25 – 100 mcg of vitamin B12 should be sufficient.
- Eat Fortified Foods Daily – Eat two servings of B12 fortified foods daily, such as non-dairy milks, vegetarian meat, cereals, nutritional yeast flakes, and yeast extract.
There’s not currently enough evidence to know exactly what the effects of taking daily high doses of Vitamin B12, but it’s understood that taking 2mg or less each day is unlikely to be harmful. It’s not recommended to take higher doses than this, and if you’re really worried about it, always seek professional advice.
Mothers who breastfeed their babies MUST ensure that they have adequate vitamin D levels. Breast-fed babies are at high risk for vitamin D deficiency so this is crucial, particularly if they do not receive a daily supplement and live in the more northern parts of the hemisphere. A deficiency in vitamin D, can have an effect on the development of your baby’s bones.
The Department of Health recommends that all babies have vitamin D drops from birth to make sure they get enough. Babies who are having more than 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula don’t need vitamin drops because formula is already fortified with vitamins.
If you’re unsure about any of this, ask your doctor for more information on a suitable dose for your baby and ensure not to give them more than what is recommended.
Calcium helps your baby’s teeth to develop, even though they don’t appear for some time after birth. They develop during your pregnancy, along with your baby’s skeleton, around three weeks after conception. Babies born at full term contain approximately 20g – 30g of calcium, most of which is laid down during the last trimester . As this is the peak time for bone growth, your baby will need 200 – 250 mg of calcium every day. During this period the baby’s bones are very supple and by the time they are born, they will have accumulated about one ounce of calcium in their bones, provided by you.
In order to compensate for the additional calcium requirements during this time, your body is increasing its absorption by double! Despite this fact, the RDA of calcium remains the same during pregnancy as it was pre-pregnancy – 700mg per day. Experts don’t consider that any increment is necessary during pregnancy, so as long as your calcium levels were good beforehand, and you are continuing with a similar diet, then you should be okay. Be sure to get these levels checked if you are unsure though.
Good vegan calcium sources:
- Green vegetables – Kale, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, collard greens
- Nuts (almonds)
- Seeds (tahini)
- Fruits (figs) and fortified fruit juices
- Fortified tofu and soya beans
- Often spinach and sweet potatoes are said to include good calcium levels, however the oxalic acid present in these foods affects the amount your body is able to absorb from them. Around 30% of the calcium content of foods is absorbed by the body.
During pregnancy your body’s requirements for iron and zinc are high. It’s recognised that if iron stores are inadequate at the start of pregnancy, it may be necessary to take supplements. In practice, many women are prescribed iron supplements during pregnancy and may also be given dietary advice to help them increase their iron intake. Most nutritionists advise any pregnant woman to take a good quality iron supplement during this time, just to be safe, as it’s very hard to meet this need.
Good vegan sources of iron:
- Dried beans
- Soy products
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Whole grains
- Blackstrap molasses
- Sea vegetables
- Fortified cereals
During pregnancy, iron not only assists your body with its usual role of helping red blood cells transport oxygen around the body, it also helps deliver oxygen to your baby. During pregnancy, particularly during the second and third trimesters, your body’s blood supply increases 40 – 50%. So to make this extra blood, you need a lot more iron!
Naturally, a woman’s body absorbs iron better during their pregnancy, so take advantage of this by stocking up on iron rich plant-based foods and letting nature work it’s magic!
The reason why vegans struggle to get enough iron during pregnancy is that the form of iron found in plant-based foods, known as non-heme iron, is not as easy for the body to absorb as some forms found in meat products (heme iron). The institute of Medicine suggest that vegetarians have 1.8 times more iron than meat eaters to compensate for this.
While you may have to think more thoroughly about this one, it’s perfectly viable to get just what your body needs during your pregnancy on a vegan diet if you endeavor to make good food choices, speak with your healthcare provider and keep a stock of good quality vegan iron supplements.
The recommended daily intake of zinc for women is 7mg, and 9.5mg per day for men.
Vegan diets can include substances that inhibit zinc absorption, so it is important to take this into account, especially during pregnancy. Needs for vegans may actually be 50% higher than the RDI. The reason for this is due to the fact that plant foods, particularly unrefined grains such as wholemeal bread, pasta and rice, are high in phytates, which can block zinc absorption .
According to some studies, intake of zinc should be increased when on a vegan diet to between 12 and 16.5 mg a day.
Good vegan sources of zinc include:
- Seeds (especially pumpkin seeds)
- Fortified products (such as breakfast cereal and meat substitutes)
Iodine is needed for healthy thyroid function which regulates metabolism. Iodine deficiency during pregnancy and early infancy can result in cretinism (irreversible mental retardation and severe motor impairments) and can inhibit brain development in a fetus, so vegan women should ensure a reliable source of iodine .
Sea vegetables are one good source of iodine in vegan diets, although the amount varies greatly and some types may contribute excessive amounts of iodine. The most reliable source of this nutrient is iodized salt – or an iodine supplement 
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
There are three types of fat in our diet: saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Saturated and monounsaturated fats are called non-essential fats, as our bodies can make these. Polyunsaturated fats are essential fats that we need to obtain from our diets – the two types are omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
Easy omega cheats:
- Flaxseeds are great in smoothies, over muesli or cereal, and can be used in place of eggs in baking.
- Add walnuts, ground flaxseeds or chia seeds to plant based yoghurts or muesli.
- Western diets tend to have a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, and it is often higher in vegans. It is essential to obtain a regular supply of omega-3, as it is essential for our bodies to function. Try and increase your intake on omega-3 and control your intake of omega-6 fatty acids.
Good sources of omega-3 are:
- Ground flaxseeds (Linseeds) – 1-2 tbsp a day should supply your needs
- Chia seeds – 2 tsp
- Walnuts (4 halves) and walnut oil – 1 tbsp
- Canola oil is richer in omega 3 fatty acids than other neutral tasting oils so use this when you need a plain oil. Otherwise extra virgin olive oil is recommended for its other nutritional properties.
In contrast, fats higher in omega-6 fatty acids are obtained from:
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Soya oil
According to two credible nutrition authorities, the World Health Organisation and European Food Safety Authority, you should get at least half a percent of your calories from the short-chain omega-3 ALA in the food sources above. Your body can then take the short-chain omega-3 from these and elongate it into the long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA found in fish fat. The question, however, is whether the body can make enough for optimal brain health. Until we know more, Dr Greger recommends taking 250mg (2-3 times per week) of pollutant-free long chain omega-3s directly. (These are obtained from algae; this is where fish get their omega-3 from!).
Vegan supplements providing DHA or DHA plus EPA are widely available.
With indoor living, clothing and avoiding the sun inadequate levels of vitamin D are being seen increasingly in the UK population as a whole.
A nationwide survey published in the British Medical Journal found that more than 50% of the general adult population have insufficient levels of vitamin D, and that 16% have severe deficiency during winter and spring.
Public Health England now recommends that everyone in the UK take a vitamin D supplement in autumn or winter of 10mcg (400 IU) a day.
Ensuring regular sunlight in the spring and summer months will also help. Fifteen minutes each day of midday sun on the forearms and face without sunblock should produce sufficient vitamin D for Caucasians under the age of sixty during summer. Those who have darker skin or who are older may require thirty minutes or more.
Other’s have recommended higher doses of vitamin D. The Vegan society makes a supplement containing 800 IU of vegan vitamin D3 a day (which also contains vitamin B12, iodine and selenium).
This Nutrition page has been fact checked by the Spoon Guru Nutrition Team
Useful Online Resources
- Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group
- Vegetarian Resource Group
- Vegan Pregnancy and Parenting Community
- Vegan Pregnancy and Parenting Group
Davis, B. RD & Melina, V. MS, RD (2014) Becoming Vegan: Express Edition. / Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition. Book Publishing Company Canada.
 Mangels, R. (2011) The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book. F&W Media, USA.
 Dr. Fuhrman (2004 – 2016) Pregnancy. [Online]. Available from: http://www.drfuhrman.com/disease/pregnancy.aspx
 VeganHealth.org (2003 – 2016) Pregnancy, Infants & Children. [Online]. Available from: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/preginfchil#pregnancy
 Norris, J. (2003 – 2016) Vitamin B12: Are You Getting It? [Online]. Available from: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/vitaminb12
 The Vegan RD (no date) Vitamin B12: A Vegan Nutrition Primer. [Online]. Available from: http://www.theveganrd.com/vegan-nutrition-primers/vitamin-b12-a-vegan-nutrition-primer
 The Vegan Society (2016) Zinc. [Online] Available from: https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-health/vitamins-minerals-and-nutrients/zinc
 VeganHealth.org (2003 – 2016) Iodine. [Online]. Available from: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/iodine