If you’re reading this article, there’s a big chance you are expecting a little one in the near future. So congrats mama! You’re also likely curious about what you should eat to promote a healthy vegan pregnancy.
More specifically, you may wonder about the plant-based foods that will make you feel your best while also helping your little one grow to the best of his or her ability.
I’m aware that aiming for a vegan pregnancy can raise some eyebrows, whether it’s from well-intentioned family, friends or even some healthcare practitioners.
As a registered dietitian, I’m here to assure you that a vegan diet can absolutely be appropriate for all life stages — including pregnancy — as long as it is well-planned. And the American Dietetic Association agrees (1).
But I must also warn you that the food choices you make now will play a large role in whether you will be able to have a healthy vegan pregnancy or not.
In this article, I’ll go into detail about what a well-planned vegan diet should look like during pregnancy and will give you practical tips on how to achieve it, nutrient by nutrient.
During pregnancy, the nutrients needed for your baby to grow come entirely from you, the mother. Since your baby draws on your nutrient reserves, it’s extremely important that you remain well nourished throughout all three trimesters.
When it comes to calories, your body won’t need much more than usual at first. You’ll need about 350 extra calories only starting from your second trimester. This will go up to 450 extra calories per day during your last three months of pregnancy (2).
However, unlike your calorie needs, your protein, vitamin and mineral requirements won’t wait until the second trimester to increase. They start being higher from the moment you become pregnant.
It can be difficult to eat more vitamins and minerals yet no extra calories without consciously focussing on your food choices. This is why the food selections you make starting from the first trimester onwards will be so important.
In sum: Your calorie needs start increasing from the second trimester onwards. However, your protein, vitamin and mineral requirements increase right away!
Your baby uses protein for all aspects of growth, from developing its muscles, skin and bones to creating hormones and enzymes.
As a pregnant mama, you also need protein to support the many changes your body undergoes throughout your vegan pregnancy, whether it’s an increased blood volume or an expanding uterus.
So it should come as no surprise that protein needs are elevated during pregnancy. You can generally meet these increased requirements with an additional 28 grams of protein per day throughout all trimesters.
Depending on your body size, this brings your daily protein total to 75 – 85 grams of protein per day. Keep in mind that if you’re carrying twins, the requirement doubles to 56 additional grams of protein per day, for a total of 100-115 grams per day.
Foods that provide 15 grams of protein per serving:
|Black beans, cooked||1 cup (240ml)|
|Chickpeas, cooked||1 cup (240ml)|
|Edamame||1 cup (240ml)|
|Lentils, cooked||7/8 cup (210ml)|
|Most nuts||1/2 cup (120ml))|
|Mots nut butters||1/4 cup (60ml)|
|Tempeh||1/2 cup (120ml)|
|Tofu, firm||3.5oz (100g)|
|Soymilk||1 cup (240ml)|
|Pasta, whole wheat, cooked||2 cups (480ml)|
|Quinoa, cooked||2 cups (480ml)|
In sum: Your protein needs increase starting from the first trimester. Include the foods above to your meals and snacks to ensure you meet your new protein requirements each day.
Folate is a vitamin important for growth and the building of DNA. Getting enough folate, especially early on during your vegan pregnancy, can help prevent neural tube defects.
This is why women thinking about getting pregnant are often advised to get at least 400 mcg of folate per day from food or from a folic acid supplement. If you’re already pregnant, your requirements increase to 600 mcg per day (4).
Foods naturally rich in folate include beans, leafy greens, oranges and whole grains.
Depending on the country you live in, folic acid (the supplement form of folate) may be added to white flour and thus also to products made from white flour.
However, since white flour is not as nutrient rich as whole wheat flour, I wouldn’t recommend relying on it as your main way to meet the recommended daily amounts of this nutrient.
Neural tube defects can have lasting negative effects on your little one. So unless you’re certain you’re getting enough folate through your diet alone, a supplement can be particularly beneficial.
In sum: Folate is a nutrient important for the development of your baby’s nervous system. Make sure you get enough, either from your foods or a supplement, especially during the first trimester.
Iron deficiency is the most widespread deficiency in the world and should be a concern for women on any diet, whether vegan or not (5).
This mineral plays important roles in the development of the brain and nervous system and getting enough iron during your vegan pregnancy may lead to better birth weights and a lower risk of preterm births (6).
There are many plant foods rich in iron, with beans, lentils, soy foods, whole grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruit and leafy greens being some examples.
That said, most plant foods also contain anti-nutrients that can reduce iron absorption. This is why vegans are generally advised to consume 1.8 times more iron than non-vegans (7).
Here’s How Much Iron Your Body Likely Requires
During a vegan pregnancy, daily iron requirements (taking into account the 1.8 factor) amount to about 45mg of iron per day — which is quite a high feat to meet.
However, the truth is that most pregnant women will struggle to meet their iron needs, whether vegan or not. And this despite iron absorption naturally increasing during the second trimester of pregnancy.
For this reason, most pregnant vegans will benefit from an iron supplement providing 30 mg of iron per day, especially if iron levels low to begin with or declining during pregnancy.
Simply ask your health care practitioner to check your blood hemoglobin and ferritin levels to determine whether a supplement is a good idea for you.
To boost iron absorption, make sure to combine iron-rich plant foods or your supplement with foods rich in vitamin C. Citrus fruit, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, cauliflower and leafy greens are some good vitamin C-rich examples.
Also, avoid drinking tea or coffee together with iron-rich foods or supplements since these beverages also reduce iron absorption.
In sum: Iron is an important nutrient during pregnancy, yet, most women (vegan or not) will get insufficient amounts from their diet. It’s worth getting your blood levels checked and supplementing accordingly
Zinc is another nutrient that many women consume too little of, whether following a vegan diet or not.
It is a mineral involved in cell replication and differentiation, both of which are needed to growth a healthy baby. In some cases, low zinc intakes during pregnancy appear to be linked to low birth weights, prolonged labor and preterm delivery (8, 9).
The recommended intake during your vegan pregnancy is 11 mg of zinc per day and foods rich in zinc include wheat germ, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds (as well as their butters) (10).
In sum: Getting enough zinc during pregnancy is important for the growth of a healthy baby. Make sure to consume zinc-rich foods several times per day.
Iodine is an essential component of thyroid hormones. Similarly to iron and folate, iodine plays an important role in the development of your baby’s brain and nervous system.
Getting either too little or too much iodine can harm both you and your baby.
Typically, all plant foods contain some iodine since they take it up from the soil they grown in. However, not all soils contain enough iodine, which makes it difficult to know whether the foods you eat contain enough of this nutrient.
Sea vegetables such as seaweed are often viewed as great sources of iodine. But again, the amount of iodine can vary as much as sixfold between seaweed varieties.
In fact, some seaweed varieties such as kelp, dulse and kombu sometimes contain unhealthily high amounts of iodine. For example, 25 grams of fresh kombu can contain up to 22 times more iodine than the safe daily limit (11, 12).
Too much iodine can also lead to health problems. For this reason, I don’t consider seaweed an ideal daily source of iodine (13).
Iodized salt is one more source of iodine. However, you’d have to consume more than 2 grams of iodized salt per day to meet your iodine requirements; which ends up being more salt than typically recommended.
For all these reasons, an iodine supplement delivering a known quantity of iodine per drop likely remains your best and most reliable option.
Since you’re likely getting some iodine from your diet, 150 mcg per day from a supplement should be sufficient to help you meet your requirement of 220 mcg of iodine per day throughout your vegan pregnancy.
In sum: Iodine is an important nutrient which most plant foods contain. However, due to varying levels in foods, it’s difficult to ensure you’re getting enough through your diet alone.
Calcium needs during a vegan pregnancy aren’t any higher than the normal recommended 1,000 mg per day. However, since many vegans fail to meet their calcium requirements, I thought it may be good to mention calcium here (14).
Calcium is a mineral your body uses to build strong bones and teeth. It’s also important for muscle function, nerve signalling, and heart health.
If you don’t consume enough calcium during pregnancy, calcium from your bones will be used to support your baby’s needs. This can cause your own bones to become more brittle over time, increasing your risk of fractures and bone disease (15, 16).
Some vegans insist that they have lower calcium needs then omnivores because their diet is not as acidic as a meat-rich diet.
For the moment, more research is needed to determine how a meatless diet affects calcium requirements. But there is evidence that vegans consuming less than 525 mg of calcium per day tend to have a higher risk of bone fractures (17).
For this reason, I strongly encourage you to make sure you get at least 525 mg of calcium per day from your diet. Aiming for the 1000 mg per day recommendation, especially during pregnancy, likely remains best.
Calcium-rich plant foods include bok choy, broccoli, napa cabbage, collard greens, kale, okra, calcium-set tofu, almonds, blackstrap molasses and figs. Calcium-fortified plant milks, juices and yoghurts are other great options.
In sum: Many vegans fail to get enough calcium from their diet. But meeting your requirements during pregnancy is important for your baby and will help reduce your risk of fractures and bone disease.
8. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps your body absorbs the calcium and phosphorus present in foods. It also plays an important roles in immunity, mood, memory and muscle recovery (18, 19, 20, 21).
The recommended amount of vitamin D you should aim for during your vegan pregnancy is 600 IU (15 mcg) per day. But there is some evidence that our true requirements may actually be far greater than the current recommendations (27, 28).
One handy fact is that our bodies can make vitamin D from exposing our skin to the midday sun for around 15 minutes — as long as we don’t wear any sunscreen.
However, if you spend little time outdoors, have darker skin, live in northern latitudes, or colder climates, your body may be unable to produce sufficient amounts.
The best way to make sure that you’re getting enough vitamin D is to have your blood levels tested.
If your levels are low, consider adding a daily vitamin D supplement to your diet. A vegan vitamin D3 appears to be best at raising your blood vitamin D levels. Vitashine, Vitabay or Viridian are three good options (29, 30).
In sum: Vitamin D is important for you and for the health of your baby. It may be worth getting your blood levels tested to determine whether taking a vitamin D supplement may be beneficial.
9. Vitamin B12
Some vegans believe that if they eat enough of the right plant foods they don’t need to worry about a vitamin B12 deficiency. Whenever I hear this, I cringe a little because there’s actually no scientific basis for this belief.
Neither mushrooms grown in B12 rich soils, nori, spirullina, chlorella, nutritional yeast nor unwashed produce are actually reliable sources of vitamin B12. Only supplements and plant foods enriched in vitamin B12 are.
Vitamin B12 is so important in the body. It’s involved in protein metabolism, the functioning of the nervous system and is needed to form oxygen transporting red blood cells.
That’s without mentioning that when a baby born to a vegan mother has a vitamin B12 deficiency, it completely tarnishes the reputation of the vegan diet.
It can cause some health professionals to consider veganism as “too restrictive” and discourage it during vulnerable periods of life such as childhood and pregnancy.
All of this can be easily avoided by making sure that you get enough vitamin B12 either from vitamin B12-enriched foods or from supplements during your vegan pregnancy.
Here’s How Much Vitamin B12 Your Body Likely Requires
Vitamin B12 is best absorbed in small doses, So the less frequently you ingest vitamin B12, the more you need to take. You can meet your requirements by consuming either (36):
- 2.6 mcg per day from fortified foods, spread out over at least 3 different moments in the day.
- 25 – 250 mcg per day from a cyanocobalamin supplement.
- 1,000 mcg from a cyanocobalamin supplement taken two to three times a week.
There are of course other forms of vitamin B12 than cyanocobalamin. But cyanocobalamin is the most well-studied, very effective, affordable and suits most people. Which is why it is the form I recommend.
In sum: Vitamin B12 is a vitamin that all vegans should consciously add to their diet, whether pregnant or not. You can do this either by eating plant foods fortified in B12 or by taking a supplement.
Choline is a nutrient important for the nervous system.
It is part of all cell membranes, present in both in animals and plants which means that many plant foods contain small amounts of this nutrient.
Choline is especially handy in the first trimester, to help your baby’s nervous system to form properly and prevent any potential neural tube defects.
Daily choline requirements increase only slightly during pregnancy — from 425 mg to 450 mg per day to be precise.
Plant foods rich in choline include peanuts, wheat germ, tofu, soymilk, quinoa, chickpeas, lentils, broccoli and Brussel sprouts. However, even when including these foods to your diet daily, it may be difficult to reach the recommended 450 mg of choline per day (37).
To be on the safe side, vegan pregnant mamas may want to take choline in supplement form.
In sum: Choline is a supplement important for your baby’s brain development. Consuming a diet rich in whole plant foods may not be enough to meet your needs so a supplement could be beneficial.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be split into two categories:
- Essential omega-3 fatty acids: this category includes alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is the only omega-3 fatty acid that you can only get from your diet.
- Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: this category includes eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These two omega-3 fats are not technically considered essential because your body can make them from ALA.
Getting enough omega-3s from your diet during your vegan pregnancy ensures you are well-equipped to pass them along to your developing baby. DHA and EPA in particular are important for your baby’s eye, brain and nervous system development.
Plants rich in ALA include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds and their oils. Getting enough of these ALA-rich foods should theoretically maintain adequate EPA and DHA levels.
However, the conversion of ALA to EPA may be as low as 5% and conversion to DHA may be even lower. For this reason, women are often advised to take an algae oil supplement providing 200-300 mg of DHA (or DHA + EPA combined) per day throughout their vegan pregnancy (38, 39, 40).
Actually, vegan omega-3 supplements derived from algae oil are a good choice for all pregnant women since they are more sustainable than fish oil supplements and less likely to be contaminated with mercury (41).
In sum: Omega-3 fats may be difficult for vegan women to get enough from their diet alone. They are likely another nutrient worth supplementing, especially during pregnancy.
12. Foods to Avoid
As a vegan, most of the foods taken off the table during pregnancy are already foods vegans don’t consume. So the “no-eat” list is quite small. Here are the main foods to reduce or avoid:
- Alcohol: although excessive drinking can cause irreversible problems for your baby, there is no evidence that a sip here and there causes harmful effects. That said, no safe level of alcohol has been established and to be on the safe side, it may be best to avoid all alcohol during your vegan pregnancy (42).
- Raw sprouts, unpasteurized juices and unwashed produce: these foods have a higher risk of contamination with bacteria which can be harmful to your baby (43, 44, 45).
- Caffeine: small amounts of caffeine are ok but it is a good idea to limit your intake to less than 200 – 300 mg caffeine — or less than 1-2 cups of coffee — per day (46).
In sum: The foods above should be limited or completely avoided during pregnancy.
What About Supplements?
Women are often encouraged to take a prenatal vitamin and mineral supplement during pregnancy. And perhaps even more so during a vegan pregnancy.
As mentioned above, vitamin B12, vitamin D, choline, folic acid, iodine, iron, zinc and omega-3s are the nutrients most beneficial to be supplemented.
It’s absolutely possible to get adequate amounts of these nutrients by eating a varied vegan diet based on whole and fortified plant foods. However, it does takes some careful planning.
An easy way to tell if what you eat provides you with enough of these nutrients is to log a couple of days in a free online food journal such as Cronometer.
It will help you evaluate whether your diet is rich enough in these (and other) nutrients, and help you decide whether it’s worth purchasing some supplements or not.
If you do decide to supplement, make sure you opt for a multivitamin designed for pregnancy or stick to the recommended amounts above unless otherwise advised by your healthcare practitioner.
In sum: Supplements are not a necessity per se. However, they are a good way to ensure you are getting a sufficient amount of the nutrients most important during pregnancy.
To Sum It Up
A vegan diet can absolutely be appropriate for all stages of life, including pregnancy.
However, it needs to be well-planned and provide sufficient amounts of all nutrients. During pregnancy, vitamins B12, D, folate, iron, iodine, zinc, omega-3s, choline and protein are particularly important ones to watch out for.
If you have any questions about a healthy vegan pregnancy that I haven’t addressed above, feel free to post them in the comments below.
And if you’d like to print a reminder sheet for yourself, then simply download your free copy of the 11 essential nutrients needed to grow a healthy baby as a vegan mama below!