Showing interest in a vegan diet for pregnancy can definitely raise some eyebrows.
Well-intentioned friends, family members and even some healthcare practitioners may voice their concerns on whether a vegan diet is appropriate for growing a baby. And their questions might even plant a seed of doubt into your own mind.
But as a registered dietitian, I’m happy to assure you that a vegan diet can be absolutely appropriate for all life stages, including pregnancy, as long as it’s well-planned. And both the American and British Dietetic Association agree (1, 2).
In this article, I’ll cover what a well-planned vegan pregnancy diet looks like in terms of calories, proteins, fats and carbs — how much you need, the best types to include and the ones to avoid.
One common misconception is that when you’re pregnant, you need to eat for two.
While it’s true that what and how much you eat will contribute to your baby’s growth, when it comes to calories, you don’t actually need to eat much more than usual. At least not at first.
Your calorie needs will only increase starting from the second trimester, by about 350 calories a day. And in the third trimester, this will go up by another 100 calories for a total of an extra 450 calories per day (3).
To give you an idea of what this means, 350 calories is about the equivalent of a peanut butter sandwich. As for 450 calories, they represent that same peanut butter sandwich with a little bit of jam and a glass of oat milk next to it.
So much less extra food than most people may think!
I’m not a huge fan of counting calories so I’d recommend you just follow your hunger to determine how much to eat.
To help your body recognize these signals well, make sure you include as many whole plant foods as possible on your plate.
Carbs are your body’s preferred source of energy and they also happen to be what most women crave during pregnancy (4).
Pregnancy is definitely not a time to avoid carbs, but rather a good moment to focus on their quality.
Not all carbs are made equal and they can be split into three main types; sugars, starches and fiber.
Sugars can be found naturally in foods (for instance in fruits) but can also be added to foods not naturally containing them.
Nowadays so many foods contain added sugars. I recently found added sugar in my store-bought hummus, out of all foods. Why a hummus recipe needs added sugar is beyond me…
Natural sugars may have a slight upper hand only because they tend to come from whole foods which often offer you other vitamins and minerals as well.
But regardless of whether “natural” or “added”, all sugars will spike blood sugar levels in a similar way.
Starches provide a more sustained source of energy to the body.
They are more complex than sugars and are absorbed more slowly in the gut. This means that they are less likely to spike your blood sugar levels or leave you to deal with the subsequent energy crash.
You can find them in grains, legumes and some vegetables — so try including these foods into your daily diet.
When it comes to grains, it’s worth making sure that you consume them as unprocessed as possible.
Whole grains contain more fiber and more nutrients than processed ones. That’s why whole wheat pasta will beat white pasta, as will brown versus white rice and quinoa over couscous.
Fiber is another type of complex carbs.
The interesting thing about fiber is that it helps slow down the absorption of all foods you eat together with it.
That’s why eating the whole, fiber-containing fruit is generally better than drinking its juice.
In addition to helping prevent blood sugar spikes, fiber also works to keep you fuller for longer, reducing cravings. So it’s worth aiming to get around 25 grams of fiber per day (7).
You can reach this recommendation by filling at least half of your plate with vegetables at each meal. Including whole grains, fruit and legumes to your daily diet will also help.
In sum Not all carbs are made equal. Favoring starches and fiber while limiting sugars will help reduce cravings, keep you fuller for longer, and prevent energy crashes.
Protein is a nutrient important for all aspects of growth.
Your baby will use it to develop its muscles, bones and skin as well as to create hormones and enzymes.
Protein is also important for you. It’ll help support the changes a pregnant body undergoes, from an increased blood volume to an expanding uterus.
That’s why expecting mama-to-be need to eat about 28 additional grams of protein per day than non-expecting ones starting from the first trimester. And if you’re carrying twins, this amount shoots up to 56 grams (8).
Depending on your body size, this will bring your daily total to 75-85 grams (or 100-115 for twins) of protein per day.
To ensure you easily meet these recommendations, aim to include at least one protein-rich food at each meal or snack. In case you’re stuck for ideas, I’ve already written about the most protein-rich plant foods around. So feel free to check it out!
A great way to double-check your intake is to plot a few days worth of food into a free online diet journal. My personal favorite is Cronometer. I like this particular one because it breaks down the foods you eat into vitamins and minerals as well.
So it can help you determine whether you’re getting enough protein, as well as reaching all your other nutrient recommendations as well.
In sum To meet the increased protein requirements in pregnancy, make sure to include protein-rich plant foods at each meal and snack.
Generally-speaking, pregnancy doesn’t increase the total amount of fat you need to eat per day.
However, you should really try to get enough of one specific type of fat; omega-3s.
Omega-3s are particularly important during pregnancy because they are crucial for the proper development of your baby’s brain, eyes and nervous system (9, 10).
Omega-3s can be split into 2 categories: essential omega-3s and long-chain omega-3s.
Your body cannot make essential omega-3s. So the only way to get them is from your diet.
The only essential omega-3 known to date is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which you can find in foods like walnuts, hemp, flax and chia seeds as well as their oils.
Long-chain omega-3s include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They aren’t considered essential because your body can make them from ALA.
However, studies show that the conversion from ALA to longer chain omega-3s is very low, often under 5%. This means it’s likely difficult to transfer enough long-chain omega-3s to your growing baby despite eating a variety of ALA-rich foods (11).
That’s where a supplement can come in handy. I personally recommend one made from algae oil providing 200-300mg of DHA (or EPA and DHA combined) per day.
In sum Getting enough omega-3 fats during pregnancy is especially important. Longer-chain omega-3s are particularly difficult to get from diet alone, so an algae oil supplement may be worth considering.
To Sum It Up
Pregnancy is a moment in life when your requirements for calories, proteins, fats and carbs change.
It’s also a great opportunity to evaluate what you’ve been putting on your plate thus far and reconnect with your signals of hunger and satiety.
A healthy vegan pregnancy diet should be based on starchy, fiber rich foods and include protein-rich foods at each meal. It also requires a reliable source of long-chain omega-3s.
If you want to learn more about a vegan pregnancy diet, I encourage you to sign up for this free email course. By the end of it, you’ll know exactly what to eat to feel great and help your little one grow as best of his or her ability.