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 (i).
- 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 (ii). 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 (iii).
- 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. In some cases, vegans may get so much folate that even with B12 deficiency, their blood cells continue to divide properly. In other cases, 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 (iv).
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 (v).
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. When babies are weaned from breast milk, they should be given vitamin B12 drops.
The recommended intake of vitamin B12 for pregnant women is 2.6 mcg, and for nursing mothers it’s 2.8mcg. Many experts recommend more, with options including:
- 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.
- Take a larger B12 supplement – If you are concerned your absorption ability is low, take 1,000 mcg of cyanocobalamin 2 – 3 times per week, or 2500mcg once a week.
(NB: For optimal absorption, chew your supplement)
- 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.
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.
The American Academy of Paediatrics, and the NHS recommends a vitamin D daily intake of 10 mcg (400 IU) for a baby, starting from the first few days of life.
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. This can have a damaging effect on the development of your baby’s bones.
Calcium helps your baby’s teeth to develop well, 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. The peak time for bone growth is in the last trimester, where 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! Due to this fact, the RDA of calcium remains the same during pregnancy as it was pre-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. 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 8mg.
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 (vi).
According to the Vegan Society, there is no harm in upping your intake to 12-16.5 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 (vii).
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 (vii).
Choline reduces the risk of neural tube defects. Most choline is used for the synthesis of phosphatidylcholine, the principle phospholipid in cell membranes. Along with betaine, choline functions as a methyl donor. Like many other molecules including folate, vitamin B12, and s-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), methyl donors are involved in keeping homocysteine levels low, as well as many other functions. Choline is also needed to synthesize low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and to synthesize the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine (viii).
Vegetarian mothers have been known to show an increased risk of having a boy with hypospadias. However, studies have also shown that a vegetarian diet is not a significant risk as long as pregnant vegetarians and vegans get enough methionine and choline as it can help alleviate any potential risks (ix).
Choline is found in a wide range of plant foods in small amounts. Eating a well-balanced vegan diet with plenty of whole foods should ensure you are getting enough choline. Soy milk, tofu, quinoa, and broccoli are particularly rich sources (x).
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.
i. Mangels, R. (2011) The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book. F&W Media, USA.
ii. Dr. Fuhrman (2004 – 2016) Pregnancy. [Online]. Available from: http://www.drfuhrman.com/disease/pregnancy.aspx
iii. VeganHealth.org (2003 – 2016) Pregnancy, Infants & Children. [Online]. Available from: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/preginfchil#pregnancy
iv. Norris, J. (2003 – 2016) Vitamin B12: Are You Getting It? [Online]. Available from: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/vitaminb12
v. 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
vi. The Vegan Society (2016) Zinc. [Online] Available from: https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-health/vitamins-minerals-and-nutrients/zinc
vii. VeganHealth.org (2003 – 2016) Iodine. [Online]. Available from: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/iodine
viii. Messina, G. (2008) Soyfoods, Iodine and Thyroid Function in Vegans. [Online]. Available from: http://www.theveganrd.com/2008/02/soyfoods-iodine-and-thyroid-function-in-vegans.html
ix. Norris, J. (2013) Choline. [Online]. Available from: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/choline#rec
x. Norris, J. (2012) Hypospadias and Vegetarian Diets. [Online]. Available from: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/hypospadias