Veganism has entered the zeitgeist in full force recently. People are turning to this plant-based diet for a host of reasons: personal growth, health, environmental factors, as a stand against animal cruelty, or simply to jump on the #vegnauary hype. There’s no doubt this regimen is as healthy as they come (hello clear skin, trim waist, and bags of energy); but concerns have been raised over its place in pregnancy. Critics of the diet worry about safety. And understandably so, you are growing a tiny babe, after all – and that requires immense nourishment. In truth, though, it is entirely possible as long as you take the right precautions. So yes, you can have your vegan burger and eat it, too – just be sure to watch your intake of the following nutrients. Here’s everything you need to know about veganism in pregnancy.
Typically found in meat and fish, vitamin B12 is crucially important for growing your little nut thanks to its central role in preventing neurological and neural tube defects in children. Alongside supporting the production of DNA, this powerhouse keeps the body’s blood and nerve cells ticking over. A deficiency, therefore, carries enormous risks, including early miscarriage, and preeclampsia. Worse still, the developmental and neurological delays in infants are irreversible.
Fatigue and general weakness are common complaints of poor vitamin B12 stores. You may also feel grouchy or ‘blue’ since vitamin B12 affects your mood, too. In pregnancy, you need 6ug of vitamin B12 per day. Sadly, that plant-based smoothie bowl or avo-toast won’t supply this; you have to look elsewhere. Fortified breakfast cereals (opt for lower sugar choices, where possible), yeast extract, like Marmite, and fortified unsweetened soya drinks will deliver some vitamin B12 nourishment; however, it’s always advisable to take a supplement as an ‘insurance policy’.
Like vitamin B12, this is a biggie. Let’s get scientific briefly: your body utilises iron to make haemoglobin, which helps transport oxygen around your body. In pregnancy, your body needs to provide your hungry munchkin with blood and oxygen, so the need for iron increases. In fact, your body needs around double the amount of iron it usually does in pregnancy, demanding a whopping 17mg per day.
An iron deficiency can make you feel downright crummy. You’re exhausted, dizzy, and light-headed. On top of the traditional pregnancy blahs, this double whammy of unpleasantness isn’t fun. All the more reason you prioritise upping your iron intake. Unfortunately for vegans, iron is usually found in abundance in animal-based products, such as meat, fish, and dairy. However, eating a range of pulses, dried fruit, wholegrain bread, dark green veggies, and fortified breakfasts will help to bolster your iron stores. Top tip: try combining your source of iron with a vitamin C-rich food to help with absorption. Why not add a dash of lemon to your pan-fried kale, for instance? Again, taking an iron supplement can plug any nutritional gaps you may encounter.
You’re probably acquainted with the rumours about milk bolstering your bones and teeth, right? Well, now that you’re going to be a parent, this chimes with you more than ever. In the third trimester, your need for calcium skyrockets when your little cherub’s skeleton starts developing. If your growing babe doesn’t get what she needs, she will hungrily leach it from your bones; hence your diet must be crammed with the stuff.
Thankfully for vegans, there’s more to calcium than simply downing glasses of milk or noshing on cheese. To meet the recommended 1,200mg per day, embrace a range of pulses, fortified unsweetened soya, oat, and rice milk, brown bread, dark leafy green veggies, dried fruit, sesame seeds and tahini, and calcium-set tofu. If you’re concerned about your calcium intake, taking a supplement can offer great peace of mind.
Vitamin D is another essential baby-making nutrient. It works in tandem with calcium to support the growth of your little one’s bones and teeth. Although you get vitamin D from sunlight, you can also find it in some fortified breakfast cereals or spreads. Generally, though, it’s pretty hard to meet your vitamin D requirements from diet alone, especially if you’re catering to a vegan diet. As such, you should consider taking a vitamin D supplement that packs around 10ug. Top tip: you need to become an ingredient sleuth when shopping for your supplements, as some products will have an animal origin.
Okay, this nutrient isn’t especially unique to a vegan diet, but it’s worth mentioning by virtue of its significance in pregnancy generally. Folic acid is critical for pregnancy since it helps to prevent birth defects, like spina bifida. Besides eating foods rich in folate – dark leafy green veggies and fortified cereals – you should take 400ug of folic acid up until 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Veganism and pregnancy is a contentious issue. You can guarantee everyone will have a strong opinion on the subject. Emotions and politics aside, it is possible to have a happy, healthy pregnancy on a vegan diet as long as you pay close attention to your intake of the nutrients outlined above. That, in addition to eating a colourful, varied and balanced diet, should provide you and your blossoming babe with plenty of nourishment during pregnancy. If you would like further advice, talk to your midwife, GP or nutritionist.