As a result of chosing to be a vegan throughout my pregnancy, I have put together a basic checklist that all pregnant vegans and their partners/supporters should know. Remember, to discuss your dietary choices with your GP and healthcare professionals.
Dr Leon Massage, Founder and Medical Director of the Body Metabolism Institute and spokesperson on weight loss and nutrition for the Australian Medical Association, says that during pregnancy, Iron intake needs to be higher because of the possibility of iron deficiency anaemia. “There is no doubt that red meat is not the only source of iron,” says Dr. Massage, “but because vegetarians and vegans do not eat meat, they should choose foods that are high in iron content such as green leafy vegetables, whole grains, dried beans and dried fruits.”
“Not getting enough iron during pregnancy can also affect brain development in the infant,” adds Sharon Natoli, Accredited Practising Dietician and Director of Food & Nutrition Australia.
You can also aid iron absorption by increasing Vitamin C intake. Try drinking a glass of orange juice whilst eating foods high in iron. Alternatively, be wary of your tea consumption, as the tannins contained in tea can block iron absorption. Dr. Massage also suggests that it not be a bad idea to have an iron supplements during the second and third trimesters.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency is becoming more common, and may be even more important in vegans who may also have diets that are low in calcium.
“Calcium and vitamin D are necessary for the development of the bones and teeth of the foetus and therefore it is a good idea to make sure that there is sufficient intake of calcium rich foods,” explains Dr. Massage. Calcium rich foods other than dairy products include figs, raw apricots, broccoli, collard greens, spinach, almonds and tofu.
Please also be aware that:
- Supplementation with calcium may also be necessary, but you should not do so without the knowledge and approval of your obstetrician.
- The best way to get adequate levels of Vitamin D is to ensure regular exposure to sunlight during the pregnancy.
- Vitamin D supplements should only be used with the approval of your doctor or obstetrician because high doses of vitamin D can be toxic.
“Maintaining healthy folate levels is extremely important because of its relationship to the formation of a defect to the developing spinal cord of the baby,” states Dr. Massage. “This defect is called a neural tube defect. Studies have shown that women who deliver babies with neural tube defects often have lower blood folate levels.”
Although vegan diets are usually adequate in folate, it’s still vital to ensure that the levels are ample. “Folate levels should be checked even before falling pregnant and supplementing the diet with folate tablets when planning a pregnancy is worth considering,” says Dr. Massage. “That is because it is important to have adequate levels of blood folate for normal neural tube development in the foetus very early in a pregnancy.”
Folate can be found in many vegan foods including whole grains, as well green leafy vegetables and orange juice.
Most vegans, pregnant or not, are aware of the B12 dilemma. A vitamin found only in animal products, vegans can only source this important nutritional requirement via supplements, or B12 fortified foods, such as some breads, breakfast cereals, soy milk and tofu.
Pregnancy severely depletes B12 stocks, and some studies have shown pregnant women who are B12 deficient are more at risk of miscarriage or delivering babies with neural tube defects. In short, B12 is essential for the normal functioning of nerve cells and red blood cells; synthesis and regulation of DNA, fatty acid; and other cell metabolisms in the body.
It is therefore essential to be alert to checking B12 levels during pregnancy, and taking supplements or consuming B12-fortified foods.
Iodine is important for the brain development of the foetus, and a lack of iodine can lead to cretinism. The use of iodized salt is highly recommended for pregnant vegans.
Omega-3 fatty acids play an essential role in developing an unborn baby’s brain, eyes and vision, particularly in the last trimester.
While marine animals are the obvious source for this, vegans must make a conscious effort to consume Omega-3 via plant-based foods such as soy and linseed (flaxseed) bread, walnuts, kidney beans and olive oil.
“A lack of zinc can affect growth and immunity in a foetus,” states Natoli. During pregnancy your growing baby needs zinc for cell division and tissue growth, using this mineral to make the most of protein from their mother for growth and development.
Zinc-rich foods include beans (green, kidney, baked), peanut butter, nuts, tofu, lentils, breads, cereals, pasta, rice, wheat germ, onions, ginger and sunflower seeds. Avoid consuming excess bran, as this can inhibit zinc and iron absorption.
The Kitchen and Beyond
“Like all women, it is important for vegan women to eat a well-balanced diet prior to becoming pregnant in order to best prepare their body,” says Natoli. “It is useful to see a dietician for a dietary review to check for any nutritional deficiencies, and to make sure all nutritional needs are being met prior to becoming pregnant.”
Natoli also suggests planning meals and snacks, developing shopping lists and eating most meals prepared at home. “Not only is the meal likely to be better for you, it also helps reduce the risk of listeria, another consideration in pregnancy,” she adds.
Dr. Massage also points out it is important to let your GP and health and medical professionals monitoring your pregnancy know that you are a vegan. “It is essential to check for potentially damaging deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, especially folate, Vitamin B12 and iodine,” he says. “But there are many other things that your doctor will check for when he or she order blood tests in a pregnant female. Do not avoid blood tests.”
When It’s Time to Revise Your Diet
Still with all of this information on hand, it is imperative to keep in mind that there are definitely some situations when expectant vegans should consider revising their diets to include animal products. Pregnancy does place extra stress on your body – you are creating another human being after all.
“I have treated many people, and women in particular, who have had a problem with their immune response after several years of strict vegetarian or vegan diets,” he describes. “They suffered from recurrent infections – viral and bacterial – as well as frequent bouts of fatigue and emotional liability. When small amounts of fish or chicken were added to their diets, symptoms improved dramatically.”