If you are a plant-based pregnant or breastfeeding mama, then you might well be feeling and looking vibrant and glowing. However, if you are experiencing a tricky pregnancy or if are you struggling with your energy, you seem run down with poor immunity, you have continuous brain fog, or poor skin; then you might need to look at your diet in more detail and increase some key nutrients.
Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or simply don’t eat many animal products, here are my top tips on how to ensure you and your baby are getting the right nutrition, to ensure a healthy pregnancy and nutrient-packed breastmilk.
Here at NatureDoc we fully embrace everyone’s dietary choices, however, opting for a plant-based diet can bring with it extra challenges because when you remove foods such as dairy, eggs, fish and meat, you can also potentially deplete yourself of important vitamins and minerals such as iron, vitamin B12, omega-3 fats and iodine, which are even more essential whilst pregnant.
To avoid these deficiencies, you need to do plant-based eating exceptionally well and this means cooking from scratch, learning about soaking and sprouting and sourcing nutrient-dense foods. It also helps if you become very knowledgeable in food groups, specific nutrients, and potential deficiencies.
Although plant-based diets can work well for many pregnant women, some find that over time, they experience symptoms such as brain fog, low energy and skin problems; this is your body’s way of communicating that all is not 100% well, and it may be time to seek expert nutritional guidance to ensure that important nutrient levels are remaining topped up. The NHS recognises that some nutrients such as Vitamin D, B12, iodine and iron are difficult to obtain with a purely plant-based diet and recommend fortified foods or food supplements to help fill any nutritional gaps.
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What are the key nutrients for pregnant women?
When you are pregnant, it’s super important to eat a nutrient-dense whole food diet if you are fully or mainly plant based or flexitarian, as this helps to support a healthy mum and growing baby. You need to ensure what you’re eating provides enough nutrition to obtain the key nutrients; Iron, B12, Vitamin D, Iodine, Calcium, Choline, Omega 3 and Protein, as deficiencies may lead to a variety of symptoms ranging from weak muscles, fatigue and hair loss to low mood, poor memory and brain fog. Being nutrient deficient may also have an impact on the neurodevelopment of your baby.
Top 9 nutrients for a healthy plant-based pregnancy
Iron – According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for Iron is 27mg for pregnant women. There are two types of iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is obtained from red meat, poultry and seafood. Nonheme is obtained from nuts, beans, green vegetables, beetroot and fortified cereals. You need to consume a greater volume of nonheme iron foods to absorb the equivalent amount of iron from animal products. Iron is important because it is needed to create healthy red blood cells for both mum and baby, and when pregnant your body uses iron to make more blood which supplies oxygen to your baby. It also supports your babies’ growing muscles and brain development.
Vitamin B12 – This is essential during pregnancy as deficiency increases the risk of neural tube defect. The RDA for pregnant women is 2.6mcg, and can be found mainly in animal foods. However it can also be sourced from fortified breakfast cereals and nutritional yeasts, if in doubt make sure you use a good quality food supplement that contains bioavailable B12.
Vitamin D – An important vitamin that helps keep our teeth, bones, and muscles healthy, whilst also regulating the amount of phosphate and calcium in the body. It is also required for immunity and mood regulation as well as helping to feed the gut microbiome. During the summer months, skin exposure to the sun helps boost up our vitamin D levels. The RDA for Vitamin D is 15 mcg or 600iu and can be obtained from exposure to the sun, supplements, and food sources such as beef, pork, chicken, and eggs however, for plant-based diets you can find it in mushrooms, soya milk and fortified foods. The NHS recommend food supplementation between October and April. The maximum a woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding should take is 4000iu.
Calcium – We often associate calcium with bone and teeth development in babies, but it is also super important for their heart, nerves, muscles, and hormones; this means that requirements are higher during pregnancy. It is important to choose plant foods that are rich in calcium such as leafy green vegetables, cruciferous veggies, almonds, sesame seeds and fortified plant milks, tofu and tempeh. Pregnant and breastfeeding women between the age of 19 and 50 should aim for 1,000mg per day.
Zinc – Essential for your baby’s DNA and cells, required for cell division and healthy tissue growth; it is also involved in the development of the placenta. The best plant-based sources for zinc include grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes; if you soak and sprout grains, nuts, and seeds this can remove some of the phytates (a substance in plant-based foods that binds to minerals reducing their absorption) which means that the zinc is more bioavailable. Nutritional yeast is also another great source and can be easily added to pasta dishes, soups, stews, and chillies. The RDA for pregnant women is 11mg, with 40mg being the upper daily intake for zinc during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Iodine – This is an essential micronutrient for thyroid hormone synthesis, which when deficient may result in adverse health effects in pregnant women including an increased risk of pregnancy loss. Iodine is also important for a baby’s development and so adequate amounts need to be consumed whilst pregnant and breastfeeding. The RDA for Iodine is 220mcg and one of the best sources is seaweed if you are plant-based. Seaweed can vary massively in terms of its iodine levels, even from batch to batch, so only eat seaweed twice a week. There is also iodine in some fortified plant-based milks. Try and stick to the RDA where possible.
Choline – This essential nutrient supports foetal brain development and the growth of the placenta; with the suggested daily intake for pregnant women being 450mg per day. Mostly found in meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs; however, plant-based sources include nuts, grains and seeds (remember to soak and sprout them, if possible), potatoes, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, rocket), sunflower or soya lecithin, tofu/tempeh and peanuts.
Omega-3 – Although there is no RDA for Omega-3, the NIH also suggests an adequate intake amount during pregnancy which is 1,400mg omega 3. These fats are vital because they may play a role in preventing postnatal depression as well as being the building blocks for foetal brain and eyes. Food that contains the highest available source for omega-3 are flaxseed oil and whole flaxseeds, chia seeds, hulled hemp seeds and walnuts. Edamame beans and kidney beans also contain a very small amount. These plant-based omegas contain the ALA form of omega 3 that must be converted in the body to the usable EPA and DHA forms, which is hard for the body to do. A maximum of 10% is only ever converted, so you do need to consume a huge amount of these foods regularly to get enough of the right omega 3. Marine Algae based omega-3 supplements, which are 100% vegan, on the other hand contain good levels of both DHA and EPA and it is an effective omega 3 supplement to take when you are pregnant and breastfeeding.
Protein – Your baby requires protein to support the growth of their tissues and organs, including their brain. It is recommended that pregnant women consume more protein at around 46g per day. Plant based protein sources include tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, nut butter, spirulina, chia seeds, amaranth and quinoa. There is only a small amount in wholemeal bread and jackfruit.
Please be mindful that RDAs vary widely around the world, but it’s super important to ensure that you meet the required RDAs as they help to prevent you from becoming deficient in important minerals and vitamins. The NIH also suggests tolerable upper intake levels (UL) which is the maximum daily intake and unlikely to cause adverse health effects below these levels. Not all nutrients have UL guidance; however they are available for iron 45mg per day, Vitamin D 100mcg or 4000iu and iodine 900mcg for under 18s and 1100mcg for over 18s.
If you are following all these guidelines whilst you are pregnant and plant-based and want to ensure your nutrients level remain topped up through each trimester, then let the NatureDoc team guide you. We understand that being pregnant often heightens anxiety and stress levels, as you take those tentative steps into motherhood but let us take your hand and relieve some of these worries for you, which will result in a happy healthy mum and baby.
- The vegan diet
- Vegetarian or vegan and pregnant
- The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diet during Pregnancy on the Health of Mothers and Offspring
- Vegan Nutrition for Mothers and Children: Practical Tools for Healthcare Providers
- NIH, Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets, Iron
- NIH, Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets, B12
- Vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia
- NIH, Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets, Vitamin D
- NIH, Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets, Omega-3
- NIH, Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets, Iodine
- NIH, Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets, Zinc
- NIH, Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets, Calcium
- NIH, Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets, Choline
- Protein requirements of healthy pregnant women during early and late gestation are higher than current recommendations
- Nutrition Recommendations in Pregnancy and Lactation
- Vitamins, supplements and nutrition in pregnancy
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Pregnancy
- Consequences of Severe Iodine Deficiency in Pregnancy: Evidence in Humans
- 2017 Guidelines of the American Thyroid Association for the Diagnosis and Management of Thyroid Disease During Pregnancy and the Postpartum