Medically reviewed by Amy Gorin, MS, RDN
Plant based and pregnant? When it comes to a plant based pregnancy or a vegan pregnancy, there's a lot to know. Read this primer on having a plant based diet pregnancy.
Wondering what to eat during a plant-based pregnancy? And how to get all the nutrients you need during a vegetarian pregnancy? Here are all the answers you need, from which vegan prenatal to take to how much DHA you need during pregnancy.
I'm so excited to bring you this guest post on how to follow a plant-based diet while pregnant, from Anita Fernandes and the editors at .
Read on to find everything you need to know about a vegetarian pregnancy. Is there a such thing as the perfect pregnancy diet?
Worried About Having a Healthy Pregnancy?
When you’re pregnant, it can feel like everyone else is an expert on the subject, bombarding you with advice and suggestions. Much of this talk will make you question your decision to stay vegetarian or vegan and avoid animal products during pregnancy.
In truth, there’s plenty of evidence to show that vegetarians can have perfectly healthy pregnancies. So go ahead and cast any doubts aside.
Case in point: A recent review study in Nutrients found that plant-based diets during pregnancy can be safe, so long as you take certain precautions.
The authors state that “well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets may be considered safe during pregnancy and lactation." They add that plant-pregnancy diets “require a strong awareness for a balanced intake of key nutrients."
Let’s take a closer look at what this means and what you should know about key pregnancy nutrients, especially ones you'll need while following a plant-based diet.
Staying Healthy with a Plant-Based Pregnancy Diet
While it’s true that eating meat-based foods can make it easier to get certain essential pregnancy nutrients, plant-based foods (whether you're on a plant-forward diet or not) form the bulk of any pregnancy diet. They can provide you with adequate nutrition and calories during pregnancy, so long as you keep your diet varied and balanced.
Make sure to to choose plenty of foods that are high in complex carbs and fiber, such as whole-grain cereal, whole-grain pasta, and brown rice. Also choose other whole foods, such as fresh fruits and veggies. You may need to make some adjustments to your meal plan, depending on the type of vegetarian diet that you follow.
During the first trimester, pregnancy symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, and constipation can lead to appetite loss. This threatens food intake. Eating cold foods such as pasta, cold soups, and salads may help your appetite, as will eating smaller and more frequent meals. You don't require any extra calories during this time.
Most pregnant women will want to eat an additional 340 calories per day during the second trimester andn extra 450 calories a day during the third trimester, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
To support these requirements, you'll want to incorporate plant-based foods with higher nutrient density such as nuts, seeds, and avocado.
Nutrition Concerns with a Plant-Based Pregnancy Diet
During pregnancy, your body will experience a significant increase in blood volume. This is to support the supply of nutrients to the fetus via the placenta. Iron is an essential nutrient for blood formation, and iron deficiency can result in anemia.
This can threaten pregnancy, as anemia is associated with a higher risk of low birth weight, as well as preterm labor and delivery. Since iron-deficiency anemia tends to have a higher prevalence among vegetarian populations, you should be more cautious about increasing your intake of this nutrient.
During pregnancy, you need 27 milligrams daily of iron. To meet this increased requirement of iron, you'll need to up your intake of iron-rich foods. These include leafy greens such as spinach as well as dried beans, peas, lentils, and iron-fortified cereals. You can also consider an iron supplement.
Keep in mind that iron content from plant-based food isn't absorbed as easily as iron from meat. To help increase absorption, pair plant sources of iron with vitamin C-offering foods, such as tomatoes and oranges.
B vitamins, such as vitamin B12 and folic acid, are essential for healthy pregnancy. Deficiencies in these plant-based vitamins have been linked with neural tube defects that affect the spine and brain.
Both folate and vitamin B12 deficiencies have a higher prevalence among strictly vegetarian populations, which is why you need to safeguard against the risk.
Although vitamin B12 is not found in most plant-based foods, it can be obtained from tofu, soy milk, certain cereals, and nutritional yeast. Is soy good for women?
Folate deficiency is also associated with low intake of leafy greens and legumes, making the problem easy to counter if you're aware of the risks. During pregnancy, you need 2.6 micrograms of vitamin B12 daily.
Protein-rich foods should be a part of every big meal because of the role that the nutrient plays during pregnancy. Protein is essential for healthy fetal growth and development, as well as to support many changes in your body.
Curious about the best protein for vegetarians? Some of the best plant-based sources of protein include:
- plant milks such as soy milk
- legumes such as chickpeas, beans, and dried peas
- nut butters such as peanut butter
Many of these foods are good sources of protein!
Other Essential Nutrients
Other important pregnancy nutrients that you need to pay attention to include vitamin D, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. Calcium plays a vital role in fetal development of the bones, heart, muscles, and nerves, with the requirement being higher in the final trimester.
Similarly, vitamin D plays a crucial role in skeletal development, including the teeth and bones. Healthy fats like the omega-3s DHA and EPA are needed for development of the fetal brain and nervous system. Omega-3s also help boost immunity and may help prevent respiratory problems such as maternal pneumonia.
Although dairy products may be the best-known source of calcium, they aren't the only source. Calcium-providing foods like dark leafy veggies, tofu, beans, almond butter, and calcium-fortified foods can help boost your intake.
Vitamin D can only be obtained through increased sunlight exposure and by eating a small list of foods that contain the vitamin. When it comes to omega-3s and other healthy fats, fatty fish may be the best source; but good plant-based alternatives exist. Is canola oil good for you during pregnancy?
You may want to take a vegan algae-based omega-3 supplement and also eat walnuts, canola oil, and flaxseed oil as additional vegetarian sources of omega-3s. Pregnant women need up to 700 to 1,000 milligrams of DHA and EPA daily. In addition to these nutrients, you should know about choline for prenatal health.
Despite your best efforts, nutritional deficiencies can develop during pregnancy, whether you follow a vegetarian diet during pregnancy or not. Therefore, it’s important that you speak with your healthcare provider and get your nutrient levels tested regularly.
For more personalized and specific recommendations, make sure to consult a registered dietitian with expertise in pregnancy nutrition. You can find one at eatright.org.
Pregnancy Supplements for a Prenatal Diet
If you're having a vegetarian or vegan pregnancy, you'll want to take a prenatal vitamin. You may also want to consider taking an algae-based omega-3 supplement. Here are some over-the-counter prenatal vitamins to consider:
About the Author
Anita Fernandes has been writing extensively on health and wellness for over a decade. She has expertise in nutrition, fitness, public health, and weight loss and has contributed content to a variety of leading digital health publishers.
Anita has a unique perspective on healthy living and lifestyle, as she has battled and overcome eating disorders and obesity.
This blog post was updated in June 2020.
Disclosure: Although I write for Everyday Health and Nature's Way is a current client, this is not a sponsored post.
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I'd love to hear from you! Are you having a plant-forward pregnancy? What are your top vegetarian pregnancy tips? What's your go-to vegan prenatal vitamin?