Can you be on a vegan diet while pregnant or breastfeeding?
Eating healthily during pregnancy is important for your own health and the health of your developing and growing baby. Following a plant-based diet is safe but may involve careful planning so you get the nutrients and vitamins you need.
“If you are vegan and become pregnant, it’s important to note that there are some nutrients that can be more difficult to obtain whilst following a vegan diet,” says Reema Patel, a registered dietitian at Dietitian Fit.
“Vegan diets may lack vitamin B12, omega 3, calcium, iodine and iron. There are risks associated to having low levels of these nutrients, such as pregnancy complications and poor infant health.”
Research suggests a deficiency in vitamin B12 may increase the risk of low birth weight and preterm birth. Studies also show people lacking in vitamin D during pregnancy may find themselves at increased risk of pre-eclampsia and low birth weight. Regardless of pregnancy, lots of people fail to get enough vitamin D, particularly in winter. This is because it is mostly made in the skin by exposure to sunlight.
With the right diet plan and supplements, however, it is possible to be vegan when pregnant.
“Planning is key to ensure you are getting in a range of nutrients in a diverse diet to meet your requirements during pregnancy. This is to optimise the growth and development of the infant and keep yourself in good health,” says Patel.
“Requirement of nutrients whilst breastfeeding is similar to that for pregnant women,” she adds. “In addition, including a good source of zinc regularly in the diet is important during breastfeeding. Sources include beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, nuts and seeds. And as with all mothers, taking folic acid supplements is important.”
Folic acid in pregnancy
People who are pregnant should take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day until they are 12 weeks pregnant and ideally before conceiving. If you did not take folic acid before you conceived, you should start as soon as you find out you’re pregnant.
Folic acid can help prevent birth defects in the neural tube, the structure that eventually develops into the baby’s brain and spinal cord. Spina bifida, when a baby’s spine and spinal cord does not develop properly in the womb, is a type of neural tube defect.
What to eat when you are vegan and pregnant or breastfeeding
To ensure you are having a regular intake of the above nutrients, eating a varied and balanced diet containing fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of vegan protein and healthy fats will help.
“Including a source of vegan protein at each meal and snack is ideal. This includes legumes, beans, tofu, seitan, tempeh, quinoa, buckwheat, nuts and seeds,” Patel adds. Some easy snack ideas include hummus on wholemeal bread or pitta or with vegetable sticks, or a small handful of nuts or dried fruit.
“Other ideas include fresh or frozen fruit with a vegan yoghurt, baked beans on a slice of wholemeal bread, or sliced banana and peanut butter on wholemeal bread,” she says. “A few meal ideas include stir-fried tofu with dark leafy greens and brown …….