It’s a special moment in a woman’s life when she can tell people “I’m pregnant!” When you’re vegan and/or eat minimal animal products though, people immediately become concerned about your nutrition. Barely a ‘congratulations’ had passed people’s mouths before questions regarding nutrition were directed my way.
I tried to be patient and share my perspective, but it was made more frustrating when you consider that no-one would dare dream say to an unhealthy pregnant woman eating a high-fat, fast food diet “oh wow, you’re going to have to stop going to McDonalds now!” Because of the lack of knowledge about vegan pregnancies in most people, I wanted to write this article to share my journey. Please note, this is NOT medical advice but simply me sharing my experience.
Questions/comments I received & my responses
Do you crave meat? I bet you’ll crave meat!
Before I went vegan, I adored meat. If I was out at a restaurant I’d always default to the steak or red meat option. I never imagined in a million years I’d ever stop eating meat, but when I made the switch for predominantly ethical reasons and started to learn about the science behind a wholefoods plant-based diet and how rewarding it can be, my tastebuds evolved to appreciate non-meaty flavours.
The closest I get to meat cravings is for that ‘umami’ flavour’, which you can get with liquid smoke and a good plant-bases burger seasoned right.
You need to be careful about your iron levels
Iron deficiency is the only nutrient deficiency which is prevalent in Industrialized countries according to the WHO. As an omnivore most of my life, you would have expected me to have fab iron levels. After all, as a kid I ate a very western high-meat die. That was not the case, in fact I had iron deficient anemia as a child.
For my pregnancy, I knew iron was important so I made sure to eat the following foods as well as take my trusty Naturelo prenatal supplement:
– chia puddings
– iron-rich cereals for snacks like Minibix with oatly or soya milk
– I also made sure that meals contained some red peppers or I drank orange juice to increase my intake of vitamin C and enhances iron absorption. I also made sure to eat large helpings of dark green leafy veg like kale which is rich in iron. I tried to limit spinach because (as the quote below suggests) it can work against iron intake.
Spinach – despite popular belief – is not a good source of iron due to absorption inhibitors like oxalates and polyphenols Whitney E.
How will you get enough protein?!?!???
Being a pregnant vegan seems to give people who have never read a page of nutrition research the authority that protein only exists in animals! The protein people get from animals is recycled from the plants they ate (basically, soy feed). The main difference with vegans is they get it more efficiently with less water use/land use (yes, plant-based milks are better for the planet than dairy!)
The book Becoming Vegan has a really helpful chapters on vegan pregnancies and lactation on how to eat healthfully during these critical weeks and months:
To meet your needs for protein [..] include a serving of beans and bean alternates with each meal. A serving of beans and bean alternates equals a cup of beans, 1/2 cup of tofu or tempeh, 1 veggie patty, 3 veggie deli slices, 2 cups of soymilk, 1/4 cup nuts or seeds, or 2 Tbsp. nut butter–Brenda Davis and Melina Vesanto, Becoming Vegan
Do you need to take different vitamins because you’re vegan?
All women take vitamin supplements when pregnant. The difference is I knew that intake of ALA omega 3s doesn’t guarantee conversion into DHA, so I took DHA supplements from the source (algae, which the fish eat!)
Why wouldn’t you even consider a bit of fish?
Did you know that according to the WHO over 90% of human exposure to persistent environmental pollutants (POPs) is via meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish? This means that when you eat fish while pregnant, you’re not only increasing the risk of mercury affecting the foetus but a whole list of dioxins:
Fish caught from dioxin-contaminated waters tend to have higher levels of dioxins than the smaller fish or plant material they eat. When a pregnant mother eats these fish, these dioxins are poorly eliminated from the body. This phenomenon is called bio-concentration. (source)
Will you raise your baby vegan?
My husband is an omnivore, but he will probably choose to cook meat at home only once or twice a year. On the whole, our fridge is plant-based and so it makes sense that Evan will be mostly plant-based too. If his nursery and schools are well educated on plant-based nutrition and ensure that a vegan meal for him isn’t just a bowl of pasta, I’ll ask for that. If however I don’t believe they can provide the nutrition he needs, I will most likely compromise and ask for the vegetarian option for him.
In short, I plan to educate Evan on the sentience of ALL animals (they all matter, not just pets!) and explain to him why I don’t eat animals. I find it so devastatingly sad that so many of us can simultaneously pass a Peppa Pig toy to our children while making them a ham sandwich. No wonder it took me 30+ years of my life to make the connection that animals are sentient and that eating them is a choice, not a necessity. Ultimately, Evan can make the decision about what he eats for himself as he gets older.
Before we conceived
Did you know that the word ‘folic’ is from the Latin word ‘follum’ which means leaf? Women of childbearing age have it drilled into them to take folic acid, but I don’t ever recall being distinctly advised to up my intake of dark green leafy vegetables?! Before I delve into the details of what else I paid attention to, I would also recommend getting your blood levels checked via your doctor or a service like Thriva.
Firstly, EVERYONE should be tracking their vitamin B12 levels and consider supplementation because multiple studies indicate deficiency across the population.
Before I went vegan I supplemented my B vitamins for years because an (omnivore) friend had a horrible dizzy spell and she found it was due to low B12. Although it’s true to say that most people get their vitamin B12 from animal products, b12 is not actually made by animals but rather by bacteria.
Due to current food production standards where livestock may not have access to cobalt-rich soil, a huge proportion are given B12 supplementation. The only difference for vegans/vegetarians is we supplement directly. In addition, one key study found that the use of supplements, fortified cereal, and milk appears to protect against lower concentrations because its crystalline form is ‘free’ to absorb compared to protein-bounded B12 from animals.
I added a tablespoon of flaxseed to my porridge every morning, chia seeds in my smoothies, ate mountains of cavelo nero (kale contains more calcium than cow’s milk) and made sure to up my intake of a variety of nuts.
I took this Naturelo prenatal supplement for several months before we started properly trying for a baby. I knew it could only be a good thing to ensure I’m prepared for when we started, and it served me well as a multi-vitamin before that day came.
DHA is a type of omega-3 fat derived from algae. Typically, fish is seen as a health food because of high DHA levels, and they owe it to the algae 🙂 Knowing how crucial this is, I made sure to take DHA algae supplements so that my body would have a store of these omega-3 fats to grow baby’s brain, eyes and a healthy immune system.
During my pregnancy
Being vegan and pregnant was actually pretty easy, far easier than you might assume! Other than alcohol and caffeine, the foods pregnant women need to worry about are pretty much all animal products. As long as you know the basics about what your body needs and why, there’s no reason you can’t thrive on a well planned whole-foods diet when pregnant.
Sometimes vegetarian, not vegan
Full disclosure, my dad died the week before I was pregnant and I inherited a shit-ton of admin and problems to resolve e.g. he didn’t have a will, we had to sort out a house clearance and full-on renovation. In the weeks following my dad’s death we had a mountain of tasks to do and we didn’t always have time to prep food. If I couldn’t find a nutritious vegan lunch at a petrol station, I would instead go for an egg mayonnaise sandwich.
Similarly, I was about 6 or so weeks pregnant when we went on holiday to Greece and a few times there were barely any vegan options available, so I chose to sometimes eat products with eggs or dairy in them in order to get by. Being a bit flexible helped me out a lot when I was on the go.
Because of my dad’s untimely death and all of the extra work that entailed for my husband and I, my workout schedule pretty much dwindled with the exception of about five trips to the local swimming pool and a handful of personal trainer sessions at my work gym throughout my entire pregnancy! If I was to have another baby I would 100% form a routine because physical health is so important for preparing your body for childbirth and postpartum.
A colleague had recommended to me the Epi-No Delphine Plus childbirth and pelvic floor trainer. You use it from about 37 weeks pregnant, although I was quite lazy and only used it less than a dozen times. I can’t say for sure if this helped reduce tears during childbirth but it did get me familiar with the type of sensation that ‘pushing’ in the second stage of labour might feel like.
I barely drank more than a sip of prosecco in my pregnancy. I found it easier to have a complete abstinence rule for myself and just drink tonic water by itself to emulate gin and tonics, or elderflower in a wine glass!
I also completely cut down coffee intake apart from one small cup here and there. One of the worst things about pregnancy is that your sleep becomes so elusive, so sometimes to get through a full workday I’d have to mentally trick myself by getting a decaf soy latte. However, I did read a sample of Skinny Bitch in the Oven and they say that decaffeinated is SO much worse for your body that caffeinated, because the decaffeination process can actually incorporate more chemicals, and chronic exposure may cause birth defects.
Wrapping it all up
Ultimately, being plant-based during pregnancy is less about the food you and more about setting the intentions for how you want to raise your children once they come into the world. It’s really important to me that my son has the chance to open his eyes to the abundance of plant-based eating, and that humans can thrive without having to cage, torture and kill animals. I want him to open his mind to the notion that just because something is systemic in society, it doesn’t mean it’s right. I look forward to discussing with him as he gets older how and why we should show compassion for other sentient beings – whether that’s other humans, our pets, or other non-human animals.