Pregnant people may be wondering if their plant-based diet is nutritionally complete, especially if they are currently plant-based or considering going vegan during pregnancy. Pregnant individuals need greater nutrients for themselves and their developing child, including carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals.
You may have heard of plant-based foods being nutritional powerhouses as they are packed with a multitude of the above and have properties to heal and nourish the body. However, is it really safe to just stick to them during pregnancy? Yes, as long as you’re getting your daily dose of prenatal nutrients. Here, we share the best foods to properly fulfill your daily nutritional needs to be a healthy vegan during pregnancy.
Is A Vegan Diet Nutritionally Safe During Pregnancy?
Skeptics of a vegan diet have criticized it for being nutritionally inadequate for people, and especially infants. This is largely unfounded. Some of the common myths include: pregnant people don’t get enough protein, B12, or iron. And what about folate? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (ADA), the nation’s largest group of registered dietitians, currently states that a vegan diet is beneficial for all stages of life, including pregnancy, lactation, and infancy.
According to the ADA, vegetarians and vegans are “at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity.” By predominantly eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds, you are likely to lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and have better control over your blood sugar levels.
Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines, which puts plants at the center of the national MyPlate, promoting a healthy dietary routine. The guidelines recommend filling half your plate with whole fruits and vegetables, a quarter with whole grains, and a quarter with protein. An emphasis is placed on plant-based protein sources like lentils, beans, and soy products.
The intake of plant-based foods brings great benefits such as the reduced risk of chronic diseases and the same goes during pregnancy, too. “A diet centered around whole, plant-based foods meets the nutritional needs of pregnant people and their developing babies,” Dr. Debra Shapiro, M.D., OB-GYN and vegan lifestyle coach tells LIVEKINDLY. “Study after study confirms that a plant-based, whole food diet is the healthiest diet.”
In fact, a growing body of research indicates that a vegan diet may be highly beneficial in reducing the risk of pregnancy and delivery complications. While greater research is needed in the space, findings from a 2019 review published in Nutrients suggest that plant-based eating may reduce the risk of poor pregnancy outcomes such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and preterm delivery. The key is to fulfill all of your macro- and micronutrient needs for maternal and gestational health—and one way to do that is by consuming plant foods packed with vitamins and minerals.
7 Essential Prenatal Nutrients You Can Get From Plants
Compared to the general population, pregnant people have greater nutritional needs. Not only do they have to fulfill their own nutritional requirements, but they also need to provide nutrients to their growing baby, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Certain vitamins and minerals are more important than others as they play an essential role in fetal development.
Thriving on a vegan diet by getting all of your essential nutrients from plant sources is definitely attainable during pregnancy, according to a 2015 review published in The British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. If you’re expecting a little one, here are seven fundamental prenatal nutrients you need and the plant-based foods you can find them in.
Numerous studies have shown that taking folic acid before getting pregnant and during pregnancy decreases the risk of birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Those who are pregnant should take 600 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily in addition to a folate-rich diet,” says Dr. Shapiro. Folate is the actual B vitamin while folic acid is the manmade version found in fortified foods. Legumes are rich in folate, with just one cup of cooked lentils containing 358 mcg, which is 90 percent of the recommended daily intake. It is also found in many leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fruits, and whole grains.
The Mayo Clinic recommends pregnant people intake at least 27 milligrams (mg) of iron daily. “Iron is a critical mineral for healthy red blood cell production and fetal brain development,” says Whitney English, M.A., R.D.N., a registered dietitian who co-founded a plant-based community for parents called Plant-Based Juniors and co-author of The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler.
There are two types of iron: heme iron found in animal products and non-heme iron found in plant-based foods. Considering the non-heme iron found in plant sources is harder to absorb in the bloodstream, some experts recommend that vegans should have 1.8 times this amount, putting the daily total at 48 mg. This would equate to the following amounts of iron-rich foods: one cup of fortified cereal, one cup of fortified plant-based milk, two cups of broccoli, two cups of quinoa, one cup of lentils, and one cup of tofu to eat per day.
You may have heard that calcium intake is critical for strong and healthy bones and that’s absolutely right. “Calcium is needed to form babies’ bones and if the mother isn’t taking enough, the body will pull calcium from her bones to provide it to the baby. So it’s vital that mom gets enough calcium, both for her and for her little one,” says English.
Pregnant people are recommended to get at least 1,000 mg of calcium in their diet daily, according to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Calcium can be obtained from a variety of plant-based sources–in fact, just half a cup of tofu with added calcium contains anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of the daily value for this nutrient. You can also find calcium in numerous varieties of seeds, lentils, leafy greens, and fortified foods. Here are some recipes to try.
Believe it or not, an estimated one billion people worldwide are deficient of vitamin D. Known as the sunlight vitamin, this nutrient helps you absorb calcium, magnesium, and phosphate—all of which are key for bone health. “Adequate vitamin D intake during pregnancy has also been associated with a reduced risk of prenatal complications like gestational diabetes and preterm birth,” says English.
The recommended daily amount of vitamin D among pregnant people varies if they are deficient or not, but can range from 600 international units (IU) up to 2,000 IU. Vitamin D is not found in many plant-based foods, but you can always gain it through a supplement just like other nutrients. If you’re looking for foods to incorporate in your diet, try some mushroom varieties such as oyster and shiitake, fortified drinks such as plant-based milk and orange juice, and tofu.
DHA, also known as docosahexaenoic acid, is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that supports brain, eye, and nervous system development in growing babies. It may also prevent preterm delivery, ensure a healthy birth weight, and improve a mother’s mood during her postpartum phase. Pregnant people should have at least 200 mg of DHA before, after, and during their pregnancy per day, recommends Harvard Health. “DHA is not naturally found in plant foods, but pregnant (people) can take it through a supplement,” says Dr. Shapiro.
However, the body can convert a small percentage of ALA, known as alpha-linolenic acid, to eventually create DHA, but most people take DHA supplements or DHA-fortified foods so that the body does not have to go through this process. The recommended daily intake for ALA is 1.4 grams for pregnant individuals and is found in many foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, and beans. While ALA has many benefits such as it may reduce inflammation, lower the risk of heart disease, and promote healthy aging, they differ from DHA, which is very important for fetal neurodevelopment.
The National Institute of Health says pregnant people should aim to have 150 to 220 mcg of iodine per day. “Iodine is an essential trace mineral that plays a variety of roles in healthy development including maintaining normal thyroid function, brain development, and metabolism,” says English.
Iodine is added to many foods, including our very own table salt. About a quarter of a teaspoon—or 1.5 grams—of iodized table salt contains 76 mcg of iodine. Other foods rich in iodine include seaweed, bread, prunes, canned fruit cocktail, and lima beans. One cup of cooked lima beans and two slices of bread will generally give you your full requirement for the day.
Amino acids, which form protein, are the building blocks for all of our body’s tissues, so there is no doubt that adequate protein intake during pregnancy is necessary for fetal growth. “Pregnant people need 71 grams of protein a day on average, which is about 25 grams extra per day from your normal intake,” says English.
Some of the highest sources of plant-based protein from whole foods include lentils, beans, nutritional yeast, whole grains, soy, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Eating one cup of cooked lentils, one cup of peanuts, and a cup of tofu will fulfill your daily recommended intake of protein. The good news is that many of the foods filled with prenatal nutrients like folate, iron, and calcium, are already high in protein—ideal for maternal and gestational health.
Experts recommend that pregnant individuals—vegans and non-vegans alike—take a prenatal supplement with the recommended daily amounts to ensure dietary consumption.
“During pregnancy, it is usually difficult to reach nutritional excellence just by consuming plant-based foods, so I also recommend finding vegan prenatal supplements to take in addition to your diet,” says Dr. Shapiro. Consult your physician about the best prenatal vitamin to take to suit your nutritional needs. There are plenty of plant-based options available on the market, including ones packed with fruits and vegetables.
Ultimately, a plant-based diet is nutritionally safe and provides additional benefits during pregnancy. There are plenty of plant-based, whole foods you can incorporate in your diet to intake essential prenatal nutrients, but you can also supplement through a daily vitamin.