As plant-based diets continue to rise in popularity globally, many more expecting mothers are opting for vegan pregnancies. While following a plant-based diet may increase the risk of experiencing nutritional deficiencies, with careful planning and awareness, a vegan pregnancy can not only be considered safe, but also incredibly healthy for both you and your baby.
Below we look at a few of the nutrients of focus for a well-planned vegan pregnancy.
Vegan sources of nutrients for a healthy vegan pregnancy
Key to red blood cell production, oxygen transport and energy synthesis, iron is an essential dietary mineral. Ensuring adequate intake of iron throughout pregnancy is of utmost importance, as this nutrient is required in greater levels during gestation.
Iron is available in two forms; heme (from animal sources) and non-heme (from plant sources). To put it simply, non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed by the body – meaning that it is advisable for those following a vegan diet to consume a greater amount of iron-rich foods daily.
To optimise iron absorption, it’s best to enjoy these foods paired with iron enhancers such as vitamin C or members of the Allium family such as garlic – and wait an hour or so either side of an iron-rich meal before consuming an iron-inhibitor. Iron inhibitors include tea/coffee, calcium supplements and cacao.
Omega-3 fatty acid
Crucial for baby’s brain and eye development, omega-3 is also associated with a decreased risk of preterm birth. This essential fatty acid may also reduce the likelihood of your child developing asthma.
A type of polyunsaturated fat, omega-3 is present in three forms: alpha-linolenic acid️ (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Plant foods typically contain ALA, which our bodies are capable of converting into both EPA and DHA in small amounts. However, this conversion process is typically quite inefficacious – which is where supplementation can be useful. Sources of ALA include chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.
Microalgae provides a rich source of both EPA and DHA and is usually the chosen source for vegan omega-3 supplements. Of course, it’s always best to consult with a qualified healthcare professional to ensure correct supplementation for you at this special time.
A common deficiency in pregnancy across both omnivorous and plant-based diets, choline is a key nutrient in supporting foetal cognitive and central nervous system development. Choline is also supportive of placental health, reducing neonate stress reactivity and the transportation of nutrients across the placenta.
A member of the vitamin B family, folate is an essential nutrient for a well-planned vegan pregnancy. It is known as folate when found naturally in food, and folic acid when added to supplements and fortified food items.
Ensuring adequate intake of folate/folic acid in early pregnancy is crucial to reduce the risk of neural tube defects.
Vegan diets require regular supplementation of vitamin B12 at all times, including pregnancy. This micronutrient is essential for many bodily processes, including DNA production and cell division. Alongside folate, vitamin B12 is also considered beneficial in preventing neural tube defects.
While some foods such as nutritional yeast and certain plant milks are fortified with B12, it is advisable to also supplement this nutrient daily. While most prenatal supplements will include vitamin B12, consulting with a clinical nutritionist or dietician is helpful to ensure adequate intake is met.
To support the significant growth and changes occurring within both you and your baby, it’s important to opt for quality plant proteins throughout each stage of pregnancy. Protein provides the amino acids that are utilised as the building blocks for your baby’s cells, as well as supporting both uterine and breast tissue growth throughout pregnancy.
While plant foods do contain all nine essential amino acids, they are present in varying levels. However, through consuming a moderately diverse array of plant foods, protein needs in pregnancy can be met on a vegan diet.
As well as promoting strong teeth and bones, calcium is also beneficial for the muscular, circulatory and nervous systems of both you and your baby. Plant-based sources of this nutrient include low-oxalate greens such as kale, broccoli and bok choy, as well as tahini/sesame seeds, chia seeds, almond butter, calcium-set tofu, figs and calcium-fortified plant milks.
Vitamin D also works to promote strong bones and teeth by enhancing the body’s absorption of calcium. Commonly referred to as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, the skin is able to endogenously produce the active form of vitamin D — cholecalciferol, through sunlight exposure. To support vitamin D levels throughout pregnancy, it’s best to aim for 10-20 minutes of sun on exposed skin at least three days per week.
Another form of vitamin D – ergocalciferol, is also available in mushrooms and some fortified plant milks.
Iodine is required in greater quantities during both pregnancy and breastfeeding, as the thyroid increases hormone production levels. Achieving adequate iodine intake also supports the rapid brain growth of your baby. While sea vegetables offer a plant-based source, the levels of iodine may vary greatly between products – and hence it is generally considered safest to supplement with iodine throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding instead.
By ensuring adequate intake of these key nutrients as part of a balanced and diverse diet, a well-planned vegan diet throughout pregnancy is not only sufficient but is also incredibly healthy for both you and your baby. Of course, if you do have any nutritional or medical concerns, seeking the guidance of a clinical nutritionist or dietician is a wonderful support during this exciting life stage.
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