A vegan diet has been shown to offer a number of health benefits. In general, plant-based diets are associated with lower risks of heart disease, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. Eating a variety of plants and avoiding high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol — both of which are found in many animal products — can be good for you. But is it good if you're pregnant?
There are some nutrients that are essential during pregnancy that are harder to get from plant sources. However, a well-planned vegan diet can provide everything you need during all stages of your life, including when you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
Additionally, a diet containing a lot of fruits and vegetables may help protect you from some pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia (high blood pressure) and gestational diabetes. A plant-based diet during pregnancy may also reduce your baby's risk of certain childhood diseases such as asthma, eczema, diabetes, and even some cancers.
If you're worried that you may not be getting all of the nutrients you need from your diet, you may want to consult with a dietician who can make sure you're getting all of the essential nutrients you need during pregnancy.
Benefits of a Vegan Diet During Pregnancy
A vegan diet can offer benefits to both you and your baby, including:
Reduced risk of preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is a serious pregnancy complication associated with high blood pressure and organ damage. A review of the medical records of 775 health-conscious vegan mothers who received good prenatal care and supplemented their diets with vitamins found that only one developed preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is often associated with rapid weight gain and eating foods high in saturated fat. A healthy vegan diet may protect against developing preeclampsia.
Reduced risk of gestational diabetes. Vegan diets that are high in fiber — including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — and low in saturated fat may reduce the risk of excessive weight gain and gestational diabetes. If you have gestational diabetes, a vegan diet may reduce your chances of having a C-section. It may also reduce your need for insulin.
Reduced risk of some neural tube defects and brain tumors. Neural tube defects, which are birth defects of the brain, spine, or spinal cord, have been associated with a high nitrate intake during pregnancy. Since cured meat and smoked fish are the main sources of nitrates in most diets, vegan diets reduce this risk.
Risks of a Vegan Diet During Pregnancy
A vegan diet during pregnancy needs to be healthy, diverse, and well-planned. If not, it will likely lack essential nutrients. Vegan diets that lack in nutrients such as protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, DHA, and iron increase the risk that your baby may have low birth weight or birth defects.
Vegan diets need to include the following, especially if you're pregnant:
- Vitamin B-12. This is not found in most plant foods, so be sure to supplement. Vitamin B-12 is included in all standard prenatal supplements.
- Iron. Plant-based sources of iron include foods such as beans, dark green vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, and seeds. You may still need to supplement, especially in the second half of your pregnancy.
- Nutrients such as zinc and iodine. These are found in some vegetables and prenatal supplements.
- Calcium. Plants rich in calcium include spinach, collard greens, and kale.
- Omega-3 fats. These healthy fats can be found in foods such as walnuts, chia seeds, and edamame.
- Protein. Pregnant women need about 70 grams of protein daily in the second and third trimesters. Plant foods high in protein include beans, tofu, whole grains, and vegetables.
- Vitamin D. If you don't get enough Vitamin D from sunlight, you may need a supplement.
Tips for a Healthy Vegan Diet
Follow these guidelines to make sure that your vegan diet is healthy and will meet all your nutritional needs during pregnancy:
Eat a variety of foods. Make sure most of the food you eat is minimally processed. Include a lot of different vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Limit vegetable fats. Choose vegetable fats carefully, making sure to get plenty of omega-3 fats. Limit trans fats and tropical oils such as coconut, palm, and palm kernel oil.
Get enough calcium and vitamin D. Eat a lot of plants that are high in calcium. No diet can provide vitamin D, so make sure your levels are adequate.
Supplement Vitamin B-12. Since Vitamin B-12 comes primarily from animal sources, you will need to supplement it regularly.