Pregnancy: Is a vegan diet safe during pregnancy?

I have been vegan for two years and just recently found out that I am five weeks pregnant. I am very nervous that I may not be getting the necessary nutrients for my baby! Dairy products are out of the question for me due to lactose intolerance. Any suggestions?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

If you eat correctly, a vegan diet can be safe and nutritious during pregnancy.

You are very wise to be asking the question however, because there are some critical nutrients that can create problems for pregnant moms eating a vegan diet. The nutrients you will need to pay special attention to are:

    • Protein
    • Calories
    • Iron
    • Calcium
    • Vitamin B12
    • Vitamin D
    • Zinc and other trace minerals

 

Lets go through them one by one and discuss why they are of concern, and how you can make sure you get the proper amount.

  1. Protein: Because you are consuming no animal products, which are the most concentrated source of high quality protein, you will need to get several servings a day of high quality protein by combining grains and legumes. Although they don't need to be consumed at the same meal, they should be consumed in the same day. Soybeans contain some of the best protein and can be eaten also in the form of tofu. The added benefit of tofu it that it also contains a significant amount of calcium.
  2. Calories: A vegan diet is often bulky due to the amount of plant products. This can cause it to have a low caloric density. A diet that is too low in calories will cause the body to use protein for energy, thus decreasing the amount of protein available to you and your baby. Make an effort to include enough calories in your diet by adding some healthful oils, like olive oil, and including nut butters, seeds, nuts, olives, avocados, and dried fruits in your diet.
  3. Iron: Although there are some good plant sources of iron, your demand for iron increases so greatly during pregnancy that it would be impossible to consume enough food to meet your need. It will be important to have a supplement that contains iron prescribed by your midwife or doctor.
  4. Calcium: The most readily absorbable form of calcium comes from dairy products. You can also get calcium from dark green leafy vegetables and legumes, but there are some interfering factors that inhibit its use. The best source of calcium for a vegan mom would be again, from a supplement, and/or from the use of a fortified soy milk or other fortified non-dairy beverage like rice milk, orange juice, etc.. Tofu also is a good source of calcium.
  5. Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products, and occasionally on contaminated plant foods, but you can't count on that. It is important to get a daily supplement that contain 2mcg of B12.
  6. Vitamin D: This vitamin is best found in fortified milk, but now can be found in fortified soy milk . Your body also manufactures Vitamin D from sunlight. You will need to either drink enough fortified soy milk to meet your daily need or get your D from your supplement. A little sunshine each day is also helpful -- for the soul as well as the body!
  7. Zinc and other trace minerals: You need these to make up for the lack of meat plus the fact that the large quantity of plant foods you eat contain phytates, oxolates and fiber that interfere with their absorption. Again, to be sure you are getting the necessary amount, a prescribed vitamin supplement is the best bet.

In general, your diet should contain :

  • 8 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables, including lots of dark greens and deep yellows
  • 6 to 11 servings of whole grains, breads, pasta, cereal
  • 4 servings of legumes, seeds, nut butter, tofu
  • 4 servings of calcium-rich foods: fortified soy milk, tofu, or a calcium supplement
  • One daily multi-vitamin supplement that at least contains iron, B12, zinc, and vitamin D.

For those who may be unfamiliar with a vegan diet, it is one in which no animal products are eaten -- no meat, egg, dairy, fish, etc. All nutrients must come from the plant kingdom.

Congratulations on your pregnancy. I hope it is happy and healthy!

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