Many people begin their vegan lifestyle at a very young age.
Whether you went vegan for philosophical reasons, health reasons, or some combination of those, you probably had to spend some time learning what works for you and your body.
Now, however, you’ve found out you’re expecting a baby, and you face a variety of new questions.
How can I make sure my diet is the healthiest not just for me, but for my baby? What nutrients do I need more of for a healthy pregnancy? What do I do about cravings?
How can I make sure that I am making smart choices throughout my pregnancy? Can a vegan diet and lifestyle still work for me?
Relax. Your vegan pregnancy can be good for both you and your baby.
We’re here to give you the lowdown on nutrition to optimize your physical, emotional, and spiritual health during this joyful time in your life.
WHAT IS THE MEDICAL OPINION?
According to Dr. Reed Mangels, the co-author of the seminal work Simply Vegan, studies conducted in communities where veganism is practiced are proof that a vegan diet can be healthy for both pregnant mothers and their children.
The mother’s health prior to pregnancy helps to indicate what adjustments need to be made to the pregnancy diet.
If the mother is underweight and gains weight very slowly prior to pregnancy, she will need to increase the amount of food she eats.
Pregnant mothers should consult with their doctors in order to find out how much weight should be gained over the course of the pregnancy.
Most of the weight gain, ideally, should be in the last two trimesters, so the first trimester should be used as a time to ramp up the nutrient intake and adjust the diet in preparation for the later stages of pregnancy.
This can be made more difficult, however, by morning sickness and food avoidance during the first weeks of pregnancy.
If you do struggle with morning sickness, Dr. Mangels offers the following tips:
- The nausea associated with morning sickness is often tied to odors. It may be helpful to avoid vegetables or other foods that have very strong or distinctive odors and lean more toward more bland foods.
- Eat what you like. Although ideally you are seeking a well-balanced diet overall, during the early stages of pregnancy it is more important for you to stay hydrated and fed so that you don’t begin dropping weight.
- If crackers and ginger ale are the only things you can eat, so be it. Just make sure you are eating them faithfully when you can.
- Many people avoid food because of their nausea, but in fact, small amounts of food eaten consistently often helps to prevent nausea.
- Allowing your stomach to stay completely empty can increase feeling of illness. In addition, you may become lightheaded from low blood sugar, posing a falling risk.
- Set a timer, if necessary, to remind you to eat and drink small amounts every hour or two.
GETTING THE RIGHT NUTRIENTS
Many vegan mothers find that well-meaning loved ones, friends, and even medical professionals may begin questioning the wisdom of a vegan diet during pregnancy.
Following are some of the nutrients they may bring up, and ways that you can ensure you are getting all of the nutrition you, and your baby, need on a vegan diet.
As always, discuss with your doctor your dietary needs and preferences.
And like most mothers, you will want to take a pre-natal vitamins before and during your pregnancy. There are many vegan options for pre-natal vitamins as well.
This is probably the nutrient you will have the most questions about from concerned family and friends. The thinking is that you can’t possibly consume enough protein without eating animals or animal products.
But most non-pregnant vegan women studied eat only a little less protein daily than the recommended daily allowance for pregnant women, so boosting your protein just a little should bring you well within the guidelines.
Since you may need to take in more food during your last two trimesters, just ensure that part of that extra food is from good protein sources like lentils, tofu, or grains.
CALCIUM AND VITAMIN D
Calcium is another nutrient that people often cite as deficient in vegan diets.
However, there are many vegan sources of calcium and the answer usually lies in focusing on taking in more servings of calcium rich foods than normal, rather than fundamentally changing the diet.
Rice milk, many legumes, and collards are among the most calcium-rich vegan foods.
Many vegans rely on calcium fortified orange juice, but this may not be a good option if your blood sugar levels become elevated during your pregnancy.
If you are getting occasional sun exposure, you are probably getting sufficient Vitamin D.
However, if you live in an area where there is little sun, or if you are rarely outdoors due to your work schedule, you may need to supplement.
Again, a good vegan pre-natal vitamin will probably be of help in ensuring that your levels remain consistent.
Iron deficiency is common in pregnancy both for vegans and for non-vegans. You may find yourself having to take an iron supplement during your pregnancy.
If you do, ensure that you do not take it at the same time as a Calcium supplement or along with a calcium-rich meal.
One of the best iron-rich food sources is blackstrap molasses, surpassing beef in iron content and providing great sweetening power in a vegan form.
Combined with iron rich grains, fruits, and nuts, you may find yourself loving the vegan baking possibilities – and they’re also good for you.
Vitamin B12 is one of the only micronutrients not reliably supplied by a plant-based diet, so even non-pregnant vegans generally supplement with a multi-vitamin or B12 fortified cereals or other products.
The good news is that it is very easy to achieve and maintain sufficient levels of vitamin B12 from these sources.
All pregnant women require higher levels of folate for the health of their babies.
But vegans are at an advantage here since many of the foods beloved of most vegans – grains, green leafy vegetables, and beans – provide great sources of this vitamin.
In addition, if you are taking a vegan pre-natal vitamins, you will ensure that you are maintaining sufficient folate levels.
Primarily derived from oily fish, DHA has been identified as an important fat for healthy brain and eye development in infants and children.
Some DHA can be made in the body by converting the linoleic acid found in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, walnuts, and soybeans and by avoiding trans fats, which can interfere with DHA production.
However, if you want to be sure, you can take a vegan form of DHA produced from microalgae.
HYDRATION FOR OPTIMAL HEALTH
One of the most important things you can do for your health and the health of your baby is to stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water is important all the time, not just when pregnant.
But what can you do when you are nauseated during your first trimester, or when the baby is camped out on your bladder and you are going to the bathroom every few minutes?
Here are some tips to help you drink your water, even when you don’t want to:
- If drinking water is unappealing, try keeping ice chips in a large cup or thermos or sucking on ice cubes throughout the day. This will provide the water you need in smaller quantities, making it easier to ingest and keep down.
- Add lemon, lime, or frozen berries to your water to make it more refreshing and appealing. Especially if, as part of your pregnancy diet, you are trying to avoid sodas, this will give you a little sweet flavor.
- Eat foods with a high water content like cucumbers, celery, or fruits like berries or citrus fruits.
Just as the most dedicated carnivore can develop meat avoidance during pregnancy, some women who have been vegans for decades find that they suddenly are craving meat.
People will, no doubt, tell you that it is the baby craving meat, and that you must give him or her what they want. However, just remember that you know best and that you can make the choices that are right for you in this.
As with so many other aspects of women’s health and wellness, it is up to you to find the solution that works for you.
Here are some possible responses to unwanted meat cravings:
- Think through your diet and see if there is an element missing, especially one that is normally supplied by meat, like protein, calcium, or iron.
- If so, try to focus more on taking in that element or supplementing it when possible.
- For example, if you have been trying to get all of your iron from food sources, it might be time to discuss an iron supplement with your doctor.
- See if a vegan meat option will quell that craving.
- While some vegans don’t use meat substitutes because they are so processed, or because they are a little too realistic, a vegan veggie burger or vegan bacon might be just the thing to help you get past a temporary craving.
- Decide whether you need to take a break.
- While you may love being vegan, if nothing you do will satisfy your meat craving, you may choose to take a break from your vegan diet until after your pregnancy.
- Give yourself permission to do what’s best for you and helps you to feel your best during this important time in your life.
- And if all else fails, be like Phoebe on Friends and find a carnivore who will become vegan on your behalf!
BREASTFEEDING… IS IT VEGAN?
Like all mammals, human breastmilk is designed for the nourishment and health of the human infant.
According to PETA, this means there is no contradiction or conflict as to the appropriateness of breastmilk for a practicing, conscientious vegan mother.
From a nutritional perspective, the American Dietetic Association’s position is that breastfeeding is a healthful and desirable choice for the health of both mother and child.
Further, they find that a well-planned vegetarian diet is appropriate for individuals at all stages of life, including for pregnant and lactacting mothers.
Beside a diet, vegan lifestyle includes other environmentally conscious and animal-friendly products.
There is great synergy between the environmental movements and veganism, and, indeed, many vegans become so because of their concerns for the environment.
The following are some excellent cleaning lines that are good for your vegan lifestyle and for the environment.
- Sun and Earth: A US-based company with a large line of products often available in health food stores.
- Bio-Pac: Available online or through select retailers
- Method: Vegan and environmentally conscious products widely available at a variety of retailers
Want a little pampering? Here are some great vegan product lines that are good for you and your baby.
- Earth Mama Angel Baby for your own beauty and health needs as well as baby products you can feel great about using.
- The Fanciful Fox “soaperie” for cleansing and self-care products for you and baby.
- Babyonica for skin care, baby care, and cleaning products that are kind to you and to nature.
For more options, or to check out a product you are currently using, check out PETA’s “Beauty Without Bunnies” database before you buy.
The most important part of your pregnancy is your health and well being and that of your child. That determines how you feel and goes a long way toward helping your baby start life as healthy as possible.
For an ideal vegan pregnancy you need to eat the great nutrient-rich foods you already enjoy, with some adjustments in quantity and a little more planning than normal.
Talk to your doctor to ensure your nutrient levels are where they need to be throughout your pregnancy, then consult this guide when you need to emphasize or improve your intake.
And most of all, relax and enjoy your happy, healthy pregnancy and your happy, healthy baby!