Vegan Pregnancy: Key Vitamins for Your Baby's Development
Whether it’s for personal growth or to simply jump on the #Veganuary bandwagon, plant-based eating is in vogue at the moment. There’s no doubt this diet is crammed with health benefits (hello trim waist, radiant skin, and tons of energy), however, fears have been raised over its rightful place in pregnancy. Critics of the regimen say it comes down to safety – and rightly so; you are growing a human, after all – a process that requires plenty of nourishment. In truth, though, it is possible to have a healthy vegan pregnancy, granted to take the necessary precautions. So, yes – you can have your meatless burger and eat it, too – just be careful to watch your intake of the following nutrients.
Typically found in animal-based products, such as meat, fish, and dairy, iron is vitally important during pregnancy. Let’s get scientific briefly: iron produces haemoglobin, which aids the transportation of oxygen around your body. In pregnancy, your hungry babe craves a constant flow of oxygen and blood, so the demand for iron increases. In fact, your body needs around double the amount it typically does, requiring a staggering 27g each day. Low levels of iron can make you feel flat-out crummy. You’re fatigued, light-headed, and dizzy. And on top of the usual pregnancy woes, this double whammy of unpleasantness isn’t all that fun. Just another reason to prioritise your iron intake, right? Wholegrain bread, dark green veggies, dried fruit, pulses, and fortified breakfasts are teeming with this powerhouse. Top tip: combine your iron source with a serving of vitamin C to support absorption. Why not add a sprinkle of lemon to your steamed broccoli, for instance? Besides adding more iron-rich foods to your diet, we’d always recommend taking an iron supplement to help plug any nutritional gaps you may encounter.
Like iron, this is a biggie. Vitamin B12 is essential to your little one’s health thanks to its critical role in preventing neurological and neural tube defects. In addition to supporting the production of DNA, this nutrient powers the body’s blood and nerve cell function, too. As you can imagine, then, a deficiency poses a significant risk in pregnancy, with it leading to preeclampsia and early miscarriage. Worse still, the neurological and developmental delays in infants are irreparable. General weakness and fatigue are tell-tell signs of poor vitamin B12 stores. You may also feel ‘blue’ or grouchy as vitamin B12 impacts mood. In pregnancy, you need 1.5mg of vitamin B12 every day. But unfortunately for vegans, this nutrient is usually concentrated in animal products (surprise, surprise). Yeast extract (Marmite), fortified breakfast cereals, and fortified unsweetened soya drinks will deliver some vitamin B12, but it’s always wise to take a supplement as an insurance policy to ensure you and your babe are properly nourished.
You’ve probably heard the rumours about milk making your bones big and strong. Well, now that you’re going to be a mother, your calcium intake is more imperative than ever. By the time you reach your third trimester, your calcium demands soar when baby’s skeleton begins to develop. And if your little nut doesn’t get what she needs, she’ll greedily leach it from your bones, which doesn’t bode well for you. This is why you need to make a conscious effort to pack your diet with the stuff. Fortunately for vegans, there’s more to calcium than slurping glasses of milk or chowing down on cheese. To meet the advised 1,200mg per day, embrace an assortment of pulses, dark leafy green veggies, brown bread, sesame seeds, tahini, calcium-set tofu, and fortified unsweetened oat, rice, and soya milks. If you’re concerned about your calcium intake, you can always take a supplement to reinforce your body’s stores.
Vitamin D is another crucial baby-making nutrient. Working in tandem with calcium, this vitamin aids the growth of your little one’s teeth and bones. Increasingly, a vitamin D deficiency has been linked to a host of health problems, many of which conspire to hijack your pregnancy. Depleted vitamin D stores can trigger fatigue, tiredness, sluggishness, and low mood – something you’ll definitely want to avoid when you’ve got a bun in the oven. Though you get vitamin D when the skin’s exposed to sunlight, you can also find it in some fortified spreads and breakfast cereals, too. That being said, it’s pretty hard to meet your vitamin D requirements from food alone, particularly if you’re following a plant-based, vegan diet. As such, we suggest taking a vitamin D supplement that delivers 10 µg to cover any nutritional shortfalls.
When it comes to developing baby’s eyes, brain, and nervous system, your body needs a steady supply of omega-3 fatty acids. Without these fellas, not only will your little one suffer, but your mood, energy levels, and cognitive function will pay the price, too. These nutrients are typically found in high concentrations in oily fish, which is somewhat problematic for vegans. Thankfully, there’s an abundance of powerful plant alternatives to bolster your stores; chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds, in particular, deliver a hefty dose of the stuff. Just one ounce (28 grams) can meet and even exceed your daily-recommended intake, supplying a whopping 4,915mg! Add a couple of tablespoons to smoothies and porridge, and you and baby will be on your way to reaping the omega-3 benefits.
Despite being a little more under-the-radar, iodine is essential for pregnancy. Like omega-3, it’s a crucial ingredient for your little cherub’s cognitive development. Trouble is, the best sources of iodine are dairy, eggs, and milk; hence vegans are usually blighted with deficiencies. Worse still, soya and dairy alternatives aren’t traditionally fortified with iodine, making plant-based sources limited. And while seaweed is a rich source, it can deliver an overabundance of iodine, which isn’t advised in pregnancy. To cover any nutritional shortfalls, your best bet is to add an iodine supplement to your diet.
Pregnancy and veganism will always be a prickly issue. You can bet everyone will have a hard-lined opinion on the subject. Politics and emotions aside, it is entirely plausible to have a healthy, happy vegan pregnancy, so long as you pay particular attention to the nutrients outlined above. That – in addition to eating a smorgasbord of varied, colourful wholefoods (ahem, don’t forget your five-a-day) – should provide you and your growing babe with plenty of nourishment during pregnancy. For complete peace of mind, we’d always recommend adding a high-strength comprehensive pregnancy multivitamin, containing the aforementioned nutrients, and omega-3 (flaxseed) supplement to the mix. That way, you’ll know you’ve covered all the bases, and can enjoy pregnancy without getting too bogged down in the fine nutritional details.
The Vegan Society. (2019). Pregnancy and breastfeeding. Available online: https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/life-stages/pregnancy-and-breastfeeding [Accessed 21 Mar. 2019].
British Nutrition Foundation. (2019). Vegetarian and vegan diets during pregnancy. Available online: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/nutritionforpregnancy/vegetarian.html?limit=1&start=8 [Accessed 22 Mar. 2019].
nhs.uk. (2019). Vegetarian and vegan mums-to-be. Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/vegetarian-and-vegan-mums-to-be [Accessed 22 Mar. 2019].
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Keri Filtness has worked in the Nutrition Industry for 19 years. She is regularly called upon for her professional comments on health and nutrition related news. Her opinions have been featured by BBC3, Prima, Vitality, The Mirror, Woman’s Own and Cycling Weekly, amongst others. She has also worked one to one with journalists, analysing their diets and health concerns and recommending changes and additions, where appropriate.