Still plant-based and pregnant over here! Less than three weeks until we meet this little person who has been kicking up a storm. I think he or she wants out…
Am I ready? YES! I’ve never been more excited. House-wise, however, we’re not quite there…nesting is in full swing (I think Darren’s nesting harder than me…he’s been amazing!).
In my last post about this vegan pregnancy, I shared my belief that a plant-based diet has been a factor in my enjoyable, low-symptom pregnancy. I also shared testimonials from several doctors and nutritionists who state that being vegan and pregnant is completely safe. This post goes deeper into the specifics around nutritional essentials for pregnant ladies.
The irony is that years ago, as a student athlete on a meat-heavy diet, I didn’t believe I could get enough iron, protein or calcium without meat as a volleyball player, let alone an expectant female. My goal back then was to eat as much protein as possible—sometimes, purchasing an entire rotisserie chicken for myself. Yet, while my portions were large, I remember constantly feeling hungry. I was a serial snacker, a bottomless pit.
Since my meat-eating days, I’ve learned that protein is bountiful in many vegetables and grains. In fact, while reading the book Diet For A New America, I learned that many scientists have difficulty creating mock diets (for studies) that are deficient in protein unless that diet is primarily junk food, fruit or low-protein plants (like the cassava). Basically, if you’re taking in a healthy amount of calories every day, it’s just about guaranteed you’re getting enough protein. One of the reasons so many of us have grown up with a protein obsession has to do with decades of savvy marketing campaigns from meat and dairy organizations (Got Milk, anyone?).
As much as I keep myself well read on the subject, I’m not a nutrition expert. So, to better understand the vegan foods we pregnant ladies need to grow healthy babies, I turned to my go-to holistic health coach, Colin Medhurst of Feed Life. Colin is a walking encyclopedia of nutrition knowledge. Here’s his nutritional advice, along with tips from Registered Holistic Nutritionists Chloe Elgar (chloescountertop.com) and Jennifer Trecartin (myedibleadvice.com), to expecting mothers who are going the plant-based route…
My first involvement in a pregnancy was with my sister. She had her first baby girl almost two years ago. And as circumstances would have it, I lived with my sister during the first two trimesters of her second pregnancy. Because her and I are very close and she always turns to me for advice, I delved deep into the lifestyle and nutritional requirements to have a healthy baby. Although my sister isn’t vegan, she’s always mindful of her diet and is trying to move in a more plant-based direction. It was quite clear through the research I did that vegan and plant-based mamas can get all the nutrients they need from a whole food, plant-based diet during pregnancy. Just like all soon-to-be mothers, they’ll need to prepare and maintain their intake of some key nutrients to ensure they are nourishing their developing baby.
The first thing that is pivotal to a healthy pregnancy is to know if you are deficient in any foundational nutritional components before you become pregnant so you are able to correct any deficiencies before your body experiences the miracle of creating life. I always recommend working with an experienced naturopathic doctor who specializes in prenatal care to help guide your body’s own environment to a place where you are ready to become pregnant. Taking a quality pre-natal supplement before you’re even planning on getting pregnant will cover your bases on foundational nutrients during early pregnancy such as folic acid. The intention of this article was to clear up the main misconceptions around nutritional deficiencies of vegan pregnancies.
Here are some vital nutrients to be mindful of during pregnancy and how you can easily access them on a plant-based diet…
Protein is usually the initial question that concerned parents grill their pregnant daughter on, “how can you possibly grow a baby if you are not going to eat meat?”
Adequate protein intake is an important part of a healthy pregnancy, but what is not commonly known is those who follow a nutrient-dense vegan diet will have absolutely no issue attaining adequate protein intake.
Many studies have shown that vegan women are easily able to meet their recommended daily intake of the nine essential amino acids (commonly referred to as ‘complete protein’). It was once thought that human herbivores had to consume a complete amino acid profile at each meal (like rice and beans) but it is now understood that our bodies don’t require complete protein at each meal in order to thrive.
So, how much do you personally need daily? It depends on your body weight and activity level, but most healthcare practitioners will multiply your weight in kilograms by 0.8 to determine the approximate amount of daily protein required.
Here is a list of my favourite protein focused foods and how many grams of protein they pack:
-green peas 8g/cup
-cooked lentils 18g/cup
-black beans 15g/cup
-firm tofu 20g/½ cup
-edamame 17g/ cup)
Nuts and Seeds
-almonds 7g per ¼ cup
-quinoa 7g per ½ cup cooked
-sunflower seeds 10g per ¼ cup
-chia seeds 10g per 2 tbs
-flax seeds 5g per 2 tbs
-hemp seeds 10g per 2 tbs)
-rye grains 5g per ½ cooked
-millet 5 g per ½ cup cooked
-buckwheat 7g per ½ cup cooked
-teff 7g per ½ cup cooked
-rolled oats 7g per ½ cup cooked
-romaine lettuce 3g per cup
-kale 5g per cup
-broccoli 5g per cup
-spinach 5g per cup
Seaweeds and Algae
-nori 5 g per cup
-chlorella 2g per tsp
-spirulina 4g per tsp
-wakame 3g per cup
Plant-Based Protein Powders
-17-25g per scoop deepening on the brand (helpful if you’re a busy body or are feeling too nauseous to eat vegetables)
Calcium, Iron and Vitamin D
Calcium is a vital mineral to be aware of during your pregnancy and if your diet is plant-based, it is recommended you are making an effort to eat eight or more servings of calcium-rich foods a day. It’s also important to include vitamin D supplements into your (and quite possibly your newborn’s) diet, but check the label as not all of these are vegan.
Calcium is important for the health of bone and teeth development of the fetus. Most practitioners will recommend pregnant woman take a supplement for extra insurance but with a little awareness, you can easily get your daily calcium through the food you eat. Plant-based sources of calcium also are packaged with potassium, magnesium and vitamins C & K, all of which contribute to bone health.
It is common for pregnant woman (vegan or not) to struggle with iron deficiency or anemia. Supplementation during the last two trimesters is commonly recommended by health practitioners to help prevent this.
To add calcium and iron into your diet, look no further than leafy green vegetables (especially collard greens), sesame seeds (tahini), hemp seeds/milk, tempeh and pulses (beans and legumes). Also, absorption of non-heme iron (plant-based sources) is increased when paired with vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables like bell peppers, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli, kiwi, pineapple, papaya and citrus fruits.
Vitamin B12 and Omega 3
It may surprise most carnivores that B12 doesn’t originally come from meat. It is found in animal foods because of supplementation or because the animal has been eating dirt, where the essential vitamin is produced by microorganisms in soil. The vitamin is actually a bacteria which has trace elements of Cobalt, an essential mineral to all humans, which is assimilated in the form of vitamin B12. Before the industrialization of our food system, humans would have most likely received their Cobalamin (vitamin B12) through eating fresh, foraged vegetables and stream water. Now, it is a recommendation for every person, regardless of dietary choices, to supplement with vitamin B12 especially if they are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant. This essential vitamin partners with folic acid for the building of genetic material, fetal development, as well as, blood cell formation.
It is commonly recommended by healthcare practitioners that all pregnant women and most of the population take a quality omega 3 supplement. Quality fat is a foundational nutrient and algae rich in DHA omegas are a perfect source to take during pregnancy. As always, check with your healthcare practitioner to see what works for you, but I found Minani Nutrition to be an excellent brand for a plant-based DHA.
“Folate is also known as vitamin B-9. It is found naturally in foods. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, found in supplements and also added to processed, or “fortified,” foods. The term folate is often used to describe both natural and synthetic versions. In a healthy pregnancy, vegan or not, it is crucial that the mama is receiving adequate folate (600mcg) from her diet, as it prevents birth defects and anemia. This vitamin cannot be stored in your body. You should eat folate-rich foods every day. Folate-rich food suggestions: chickpeas, lentils, spinach, okra, peas, and mung beans.” – Jennifer Trecartin, RHN myedibleadvice.com
As you can see, all the important nutrients that are required for a healthy pregnancy can be found in a well balanced plant-based whole food diet, with some intentional supplementation (administered by your healthcare practitioner) specific to fulfilling all your growing baby’s needs. The important point is to have the right team of support behind you and to not be so hard on yourself if you don’t feel like eating certain foods. Listening to your body and your cravings is a great way to guide your meals and snacks. You will always be the best judge of what you truly need.
Thank you, Colin, Jennifer and Chloe! Learn more about Colin’s nutrition classes and his new e-cookbook, containing 100+ plant-based recipes from 17 well-known local vegans, here, and check out Jennifer and Chloe’s nutrition businesses here and here.
If you’re still feeling uncertain about sticking to a plant-based diet while pregnant, I’ll leave you with this quote from the American Dietetic Association, “Well-planned vegetarian diets [including total vegetarian or vegan diets] are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes.”