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Is It Safe to Be Vegan While Pregnant?

Dear Pregnancy Goddess,

It it okay to be vegan during pregnancy?

Signed,

Pregnant and Vegan (Or should I just be pregnant?)

During pregnancy, we examine so many aspects of what we do: the vitamins we take, the amount of water we drink, the sleep we get, the caffeine we limit, the alcohol we avoid, and the food we eat.

But what if the food we eat doesn’t nourish your baby enough? Is being vegan a healthy lifestyle? Is being vegan okay for our baby?

To start off with: being vegan does not necessarily mean you are a healthier eater - nor does it mean you are an unhealthier eater. Vegans have the potential to be healthy eaters provided they watch what they eat - just like everyone else! I once knew a vegan who ate French fries, potato chips, and vegan cookies nonstop - so yes, vegan doesn’t mean healthier.

But being vegan, there are some essential nutrients you have to keep an eye out for and make sure you get enough of - and provided you do, it’s possible to be healthy, vegan, and pregnant.

Of course, talk to your doctor. Explain your desire to have a healthy vegan pregnancy, and ask if they have any tips. They might even suggest a nutritionist to help guide you through your pregnancy to make sure everything is okay. If your doctor is skeptical of how a vegan diet can be healthy, show them this article, and show them a food diary of what you have been eating.

Talk to your doctor about testing your blood for any vitamin deficiencies. You need to know how your body is doing, whether or not you need to take any supplements, and any risks you might be encountering.

Here are some areas of nutrition you should keep in mind:

7  Protein

Many people like to harp upon the importance of protein, claiming that vegans don’t get enough protein. However, there are many great ways for vegans to get their protein. Tempeh (31 grams) and soybeans (29 grams) have the highest amount of protein for vegan foods, followed by seitan (21 grams), lentils (18 grams), and various kinds of beans have 15 grams of protein per serving. Not bad.

By doing a bit more thinking, you can make sure you diet is full of protein. Add a scoop of soy protein powder, soy milk, or a nut butter to your morning smoothie to boost your protein intake. Snack on soy yogurt, nuts, or hummus and raw veggies. Your lunches and dinners should always include a healthy serving of protein; get creative in the kitchen, like a nice tofu vegetable stir-fry with peanut sauce (48 grams of protein per serving). Yum!

Check out this list of great protein sources if you’re stumped!

If you’re suffering from severe morning sickness, and are having trouble finding protein-rich foods edible, talk to your doctor about suggestions they might have. If your stomach tends to settle later in the day, slip some easy-to-digest protein-rich smoothies into your diet.

6  Having Issues Gaining Weight

I know, I know. Most of us would love to have this problem: difficulty gaining weight. But during pregnancy, we need to make sure we gain sufficient weight.

Because some vegans are on the slim side, and because many vegan foods are lower in calories, some vegan moms-to-be struggle with gaining enough weight. It can be even worse for pregnant vegans experiencing severe morning sickness!

If this sounds like an issue you’re having, rethink your diet. Where can you add extra calories? Liquid calories are often easier to absorb, so add an extra smoothie to your day. Maybe have one with soy milk, fruits, and protein powder, and a second with banana, soy milk, peanut butter, and blueberries (this one is my favorite - and I’m not even vegan!).

Not sure how much weight to gain during pregnancy? Check out these guidelines, which are all based on BMI.

5  Calcium

It’s critical to have a diet with sufficient calcium during pregnancy. Calcium is necessary for your baby to build strong bones and teeth; develop a healthy heart, nerves, and muscles; and to develop a normal heart rhythm and blood-clotting abilities. If your diet isn’t high enough in calcium during your pregnancy, your baby will draw it from your bones, which could create more problems for you later on.

But all calcium doesn’t come from milk (as many often mis-imagine!).

Some vegan foods high in calcium include blackstrap molasses (400 mg), collard greens (357 mg), non-cow milks (300-500 mg), tofu (200-420 mg), and calcium-fortified orange juice (350 mg).

If you’re worried about your calcium intake, talk to your doctor about the possibility of taking a calcium supplement.

4  Vitamin B

Vitamin B12 is only found in food that comes from animals. Because Vitamin B12 partners with folic acid in proper fetal development (and important for red blood cell formation and building genetic material), you definitely need to make sure you’re getting enough!

There are lots of B12 supplements out there, so you can take one of those. You can also include B12 in your diet by including foods that are fortified with B12: certain soy milks, certain fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, and certain fortified meat supplements. Check the labels.

A B12 deficiency is not a good thing. If your doctor is concerned, they might want to do a blood test to make sure everything looks okay.

3  Vitamin D

Because Vitamin D is only available from the sun, fortified milks (cow's milk and many other milks), and supplements, it’s important to keep an eye on how much Vitamin D you are getting.

If you drink a milk alternative, check the label to see if fortified Vitamin D is included. If it isn’t, think about switching to another brand during your pregnancy. You can also take a supplement; be sure to talk to your doctor about any recommended brands and amounts they might want you to take.

Oh, and you don’t want to spend so much time in the sun that you’re doing damage on your skin, but an easy walk in the sun can also help you get some Vitamin D. Regular exercise is important for a healthy pregnancy, so you’d be doing double duty!

2  Iron

It’s not uncommon for pregnant women (vegan and non-vegans) to suffer from anemia during pregnancy. However, if you’re vegan, you should be especially cautious that you’re getting enough iron during your pregnancy.

Symptoms of anemia include general exhaustion and weakness, pale skin, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, craving to eat nonfood items (like dirt), cold hands and feet, rapid or irregular heartbeat, brittle nails, tongue soreness, and leg tingling.

Anemia can have quite an impact if you’re not aware of it; a blood test can easily determine if you are anemic, and taking iron pills can quickly cure it. (Just be aware: most iron pills can also cause constipation, so look for iron pills that are softer on the stomach, or talk to your doctor about taking a stool softener if you suffer from constipation.) 

There was one study that found those who took iron supplements in the first six months of pregnancy could be at risk for having a son born with hypospadias (though other things can cause this condition as well, including getting the flu). Some women might want to avoid iron pills as a result of this study, and stick with focusing on a higher-iron diet to get all the nutrients they need. Talk to your doctor about their thoughts on iron supplements.

1  So Is It Safe to be Vegan During Pregnancy?

Yes, it’s safe to be vegan while pregnant - provided you eat a healthy diet and if it looks like you’re getting all of your vitamins and minerals and protein!

There are healthy ways to be a vegan - and unhealthy ways. Likewise, there are healthy ways to be a non-vegan, and non-healthy ways to be a non-vegan. Both vegans and non-vegans need to consider what they eat during pregnancy - both can be healthy and unhealthy.

There is limited research out there showing conclusive results of potential benefits or dangers of being vegan during pregnancy.One study found that more research needs to be done before making solid conclusions.

Throughout your pregnancy, keep in touch with your doctor. Make sure they know you’re vegan, understand why you’re vegan, and be prepared to discuss your commitment and any concerns they have. If you are encountering any difficulties, they might recommend it’s in your baby’s best interest to stop being vegan - make sure you understand fully the dangers and problems, and discuss with them how to solve any problems. 

But, provided you eat healthy, you don’t have any problems, and are a conscious eater, a vegan pregnancy is not any more complicated than a non-vegan pregnancy.

I must admit that even if you are a committed vegan, this might change. A good friend of mine was vegan, and began having cravings for hamburgers through her pregnancy. She’d drink soy milk and eat a healthy vegan diet, but with hamburgers every other day. Post-pregnancy, she’s back to being vegan, but she likes to joke that, “My baby wouldn’t let me be vegan! I was vegan during most days, with hamburgers at night. And sometimes, don’t tell, they were even bacon cheeseburgers!”

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