Plant-Based Pregnancy Nutrition
One of the questions that seems to come up more and more lately is whether or not it is safe to follow a vegan diet during pregnancy.
I don’t know if this is because I am heading into the home stretch with my own pregnancy (I am 39 weeks this week!), and that just tends to get the topic ‘out there,’ but whatever the reason, I am very glad that it is something that health conscious people are eager to examine. :)
As a vegan mother-to-be myself, I can assure you there are literally no limits to what I would do to ensure the health of my growing baby. I understand and honor the determination that every new mom has to provide the very best for herself and baby!
I will share that I am very grateful in that I’ve had a DREAM pregnancy. I experienced a little nausea in the first trimester, and some acid reflux in the third, but other than that I have no complaints. I sleep great, have tons of energy, and was hiking my regular hike up until about 33 weeks. Since then I’ve been walking around 5 miles a day on more flat ground. I’ve gained around 17 pounds total- all in my belly!- but my baby is measuring in ultrasounds to weigh in around a healthy 8 pounds. This is also not genetic- my mother gained over 60 pounds when pregnant with me (and she was not eating anywhere near what I would consider a healthy diet)!
I also did not experience “weird” food cravings. For the most part, I’ve eaten the same foods- just more of them, and more of the dense ones- including lentils and brown rice. And no, I did not want a steak! In fact meat and dairy never seemed more unappealing to me!
Of course, a healthy lifestyle in general is important, but I want to focus on nutrition here because the most important thing for you and baby is a healthy, balanced diet.
Simply avoiding meat and dairy obviously does not indicate that you eat healthy or are taking in the requisite quantities of vitamins, minerals and fiber to help your body provide for itself, no less the growing baby inside you, so let’s take a look at it from a healthy, nutrition-focused vegan perspective. Right up front I will say that it is important that vegans (but everyone really) should be sure to be taking a high-quality, whole food based pre-natal that includes B12 and vitamin D, through breast-feeding as well.
And to be honest, I am surprised that the opposite question isn’t being asked more often, “Is it safe to have meat/dairy when pregnant?”.
The World Health Organization points out that 90% of dioxin exposure comes from the meat and dairy supply- just as one example of the high levels of toxicity that can enter the body through these foods.
Dioxin is a toxin that persists in the environment and is associated with reproductive, developmental and hormonal damage. (More on this in a moment!). But (sigh), I know this information is not as out there as a lot of the MISinformation that is out there, so maybe it’s not so surprising.
Even though your body requires roughly 80,000 calories to ‘build’ a brand new human being, the most important thing is not the calories that you take in, but the quality, or the nutrition density of those calories.
In any discussion on food and nutrition, quality takes precedence over quantity, and never more so than during pregnancy.
Plants provide us with the most abundant source of nutrients, vitamins, and essential minerals in the food supply, so for nutrient density you really can’t beat a diverse, organic plant based diet. That is why I advocate treating yourself to a Glowing Green Smoothie every day.
Of course, you want to wash everything really well, as it is an unpasteurized product. Every single sip of it is just chock full of vitamins, enzymes, minerals, antioxidants and more that is wonderfully nourishing for you and baby.
Because approximately 50% of all pregnancies are unplanned, the CDC recommends 400 mcg of folic acid daily for women of childbearing age, and 600 mcg during the last 5 months of your pregnancy.
A great way to get folate, the natural form of folic acid into your diet, naturally, is from consuming dark leafy greens and especially in your Glowing Green Smoothie!
There is a lot of focus on macro nutrients these days, most specifically, protein. Protein is the material of life, and forms the basis of essential bodily tissues like skin, muscle, bone matrix and marrow.
Proteins also do most of the heavy lifting in the cells, providing structure, function, and regulation for tissues and organs. Pretty important stuff!
While the average healthy woman should be taking in roughly 46 grams of protein per day, you really need to be getting 70 or so per day during your pregnancy.
According to the World Health Organization, around 6% of your daily calories during pregnancy should really come from protein sources.
Unfortunately, many women (wrongly) think that the only way to meet the additional calorie and protein requirements of pregnancy is to eat a very heavy, meat-based diet.
This may be one of the reasons that many western women tend to gain too much weight during pregnancy, contributing to a host of nasty complications like gestational diabetes, edema, and preeclampsia. Heavy to digest foods that can accrue in the body are a double whammy during pregnancy, when digestion is already compromised in general.
According to an article published by the Columbia University School of Public Health, severe preeclampsia rates have risen dramatically in the US over the past 30 years right along with obesity rates.
Complications due to preeclampsia are a leading contributing factor to the high rate of deliveries by Caesarian Section in Western countries. According to a research article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, preeclampsia is virtually non-existent in vegan moms!
The fact is, meat-eating Americans are generally consuming greater amounts of protein than their bodies need anyway, so what doesn’t accumulate as sludge in the intestinal tract is being eliminated as waste or converted into body fat.
Too much protein, especially when that includes animal and dairy protein, is extremely acidic and has an aging effect on the body. This is truer than ever for expectant moms.
But it is all so unnecessary when high quality, clean-burning, bio-available protein is absolutely available to everyone in abundance through plant based sources, and without all the risk of increased toxicity to you and your baby associated with a meat based diet.
According to the World Health Organization, POPs (Persistant Organic Pollutants) represent a range of about twelve dangerous chemical compounds that are prevalent in our environment. They actually nicknamed these “the Dirty Dozen,” and for good reason! These are chemically very stable compounds that can last up to 11 years in the body with the potential to do harm to vital organs in the body.
WHO research confirms that over 90% of human exposure to these contaminants exists through the food supply – mainly meat, dairy, fish and shellfish.
Remember, the grazing animals that wind up in the meat case at the store are eating plants and drinking water that can be tainted with all sorts of nasty things like industrial pollutants, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, etc. There is research showing how much more tainted with toxins like PCB’s, etc. that is in the breast milk of non-vegetarian mothers.
“But how can this be?”
These toxins typically just accumulate in the animal’s fat cells until, through processing, they find their way to the dinner table, then into your body and unfortunately to your baby (and breast milk).
Time and again, studies have conclusively shown that the lower the amount animal fat in a woman’s diet, the lower the level of toxic chemicals will be. Surprised? This is not new information at all. In fact, waaay back in 1981, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a study showing that “The highest levels of contamination in the breast milk of vegetarians was lower than the lowest levels of contamination in non-vegetarian women.” Even before that, the EPA released findings stating that mean vegetarian toxicity levels were found to be only 1 to 2% of the average toxicity found in the general populations breast milk. Even the lowest non-vegetarian levels cannot compare with the wholesomeness found in the breast milk of women whose diets do not contain meat or dairy products.
The best way to avoid all this is to simply eat lower on the food chain.
**Buy organic and local whenever possible if you want to be sure that none of these substances are a part of your (and baby’s) food supply.
It’s really easy to get all the protein you need while being plant-based. Here is an example of a typical day for me with protein gram approximations. Note that I am definitely eating heavier meals at lunch now, and mid-morning, and I am also eating more often. Pregnant women need to keep energy up- plus there just isn’t that much room in there to pack in a lot of food at once! :) :
Hot water with lemon
24 ounces Glowing Green Smoothie: around 10 grams of protein
Early lunch/late morning:
Large Kale Salad with Brussels sprouts and other veggies: 13 grams of protein
Gorilla Collard Wraps (with walnut nut meat): 11 grams protein
Chia pudding: 5 grams protein
Prenatals + Algae DHA/EPA supplement
Power Protein Shake: around 20 grams protein
Lentil and kale soup: 9 grams protein
1 cup of cooked quinoa with big serving of broccoli: 11 grams
Hot hemp or almond milk with carob: 2 grams
Total protein for day: 81 grams
Healthy fats are very important for your own continuing health, and vital to the health and development of your growing baby. Not all fats are created equal, of course, so stick to mainly unsaturated fats to help to fuel your little one’s brain growth, especially towards the latter stages of your pregnancy.
Unsaturated fats are an essential component of any healthy diet, supporting heart health, healthy cell repair/development, and helping to keep the gut lubricated.
Polyunsaturated fats are rich in omega-3s — EPA and DHA — to help develop and sustain the health of your baby’s heart, immune system, brain, eyes and more. For years, people thought that the only way to get the necessary amount of Omega 3s in your diet was through fish and fish products, and this is simply not the case.
The problem with consuming fatty fish on a regular basis is that they also store toxins in fat cells, including heavy metals like mercury and a whole host of other environmental toxins. Much like grazing animals, fish swim in polluted waters, filtering out contaminants and storing them in fat cells, which simply accumulate there until they are consumed and then end up in your body, which is why I recommend regular supplementation with high quality, vegan EPA/DHA.
The fats found in things like avocados, almonds, and olive oil are great for helping keep cholesterol in check, as well as providing a good source of folate, (folic acid), an essential nutrient which helps prevent serious birth defects.
I do recommend taking an algae-based DHA/EPA supplement for insurance while pregnant and breast-feeding, as I do.
Carbohydrates may have gotten a bad rap over the years, but they are an important source of fuel for the healthy mother and her growing baby because they are broken down into sugars which easily cross the placenta, providing baby with his/her primary source of energy.
Studies have shown that low carbohydrate diets during pregnancy will result in lower birth weights.
The key here is to concentrate on unrefined carbs which will break down more slowly, providing a steadier flow of glucose to your bloodstream, rather than the quick spike and resulting crash you will experience from processed foods.
I shared my latest recipe last week which is full of nutrients that are amazing for Mama! This dish above is called The Mama Nourishment Bowl.
Feel free to enjoy hearty foods like brown rice, buckwheat, oats, barley, quinoa, spelt, peas, sweet potatoes and legumes which are not only great sources of healthy carbohydrates, but are also chock full of vitamins, minerals and the healthy dietary fiber that is so important to your good digestion and healthy bowels.
It is hard to overstate the importance of dietary fiber in a healthy diet, yet this is an area where the majority of Westerners are sorely deficient.
Would it surprise you to learn that the average American is getting less than 50% of the RDA of dietary fiber daily?
Much of this may be attributed to a growing addiction to fast and processed foods, in addition to the reliance on the meat and animal products that anchor the meals in many American households.
The problems that stem from this one aspect of the typical Western diet are evident in the extreme rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancers that are reaching epidemic levels in our culture.
Fiber is the part of the plant that our bodies do not digest. Instead of being absorbed as a typical nutrient, its job is to sweep the toxins out of our digestive tracts, helping purify our systems and providing necessary bulk to stimulate the healthy movement of our bowels while also signaling us to stop eating and helping us to keep that “full” feeling between meals.
As any expectant mother knows, heartburn, constipation and indigestion are common occurrences during pregnancy. it may be as simple as making sure you are getting enough fiber in your diet. And that’s not all. Not only will constipation and irregularity be kept in check, according to Elisa Zied, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., it can also help reduce the risks of glucose intolerance that is linked with gestational diabetes.
That being said, I have experienced heartburn AND have been getting a lot of fiber. What has worked for me? Cutting out garlic and onions almost entirely, eating dinner earlier, and propping up my head higher at night
I want to make sure that we don’t leave out mention of this essential nutrient for our expectant moms! The RDA for calcium is 1,300 mg/day for women aged 14-18 years and 1,000 mg/day for women aged 19-50, and that is a pretty good number to stick with throughout your pregnancy and lactation, as your bones actually provide mineralization for baby.
Of course we know calcium is essential for your baby’s bones as they grow, and it helps protect mama’s from osteoporosis later in life, but did you know that studies have proven calcium supplementation during pregnancy (≥1,000 mg/day) was associated with a 35% lower risk of high blood pressure and a 55% lower risk of preeclampsia, and ever a reduced risk of preterm birth?
Although westerners have been programmed to look to dairy products to provide our calcium needs, there are many wonderful plant-based sources of calcium for the vegan mom, including: beans, lentils, kale, broccoli, rice milk, figs, sweet potatoes and butternut squash.
One of my favorite daily treats in the evening lately is heating up unsweetened hemp milk, and adding some carob and coconut nectar. Just 2 cups of hemp milk lists on the label as having 60% of the general RDA calcium recommendation.
Remember, if your doctor recommends you to supplement, it’s best if you can take your iron supplements and your calcium supplements at least two hours apart, as the calcium has been found to inhibit the effective absorption of iron.
Eating a plant-based diet during pregnancy can help you gain the optimal amount of weight, without becoming too heavy or obese, feel great and have more energy because it is rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
That, along with a high quality, whole foods based prenatal vitamin will help you stack the deck in favor of a happy, healthy pregnancy while also, helping you avoid unwelcome complications such as high blood pressure, diabetes and constipation.
I also think it is super important for me to continue taking my SBO probiotics.
When you are pregnant you really need every little bit of nutrition. What the SBO probiotics do is mimic the soil that grows healthy vegetables. They are able to help our guts heal and keep them really healthy and balanced.
This probiotic is special as it is a type of probiotic that can get through to your gut, and really nourish it which makes a huge difference.
Many of you have written in and said it helps with bloating, which it does. When you’re pregnant, it not only helps reduce the bloating, it also keep digestion functioning at its best.
A lot of us don’t realize that certain vital nutrients like iron absorb through your gut, so having a healthy gut is extra important when you’re pregnant. SBO probiotics can actually help you absorb more nutrients.
As an added benefit, a high quality, plant based diet will also help you bounce back more quickly after the birth of your new baby.
Always make sure you consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, and be sure to follow his/her recommendations carefully.
Whether you are currently pregnant, thinking about getting pregnant in the future, or simply curious about this topic, I hope you have found this interesting and can now see the perspective of how fantastically healthy, much lower in toxicity and all around nourishing and energizing a plant-based pregnancy can be for Mama and Baby!
In love and health,