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Vegan Pregnancy: Is A Vegan Diet Healthy During Pregnancy? List Of Foods To Eat And Avoid

The benefits of turning vegan are plenty; in addition to how it helps the environment and the animals, veganism is beneficial for your overall health. Essentially, veganism is eliminating the use of animal products, particularly from the diet. A vegan abstains from eating dairy products, eggs, meat, honey etc., as a way to prevent 'cruelty' inflicted on animals.

Recent reports indicate that the number of women (who are not vegan) choosing to go vegan (follow a vegan diet) is constantly rising. So, is it healthy to follow a vegan diet when you are pregnant? If yes, how is it healthier than a regular meat-based or vegetarian diet?

Read about Vegan Pregnancy here.

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Benefits Of Vegan Diet During Pregnancy

It is important to have a healthy diet during your pregnancy as you require more nutrients and proteins than ever. Experts say that a pregnant woman should consume protein vitamins and minerals, healthy types of fat, complex carbohydrates, fibre and fluids - which a vegan diet can provide [1][2].

The one thing that a vegan diet cannot provide is dairy products, which contain two types of high-quality proteins, casein and whey - both of which are not vegan. However, other rich protein and calcium foods in a vegan diet can help with this.

The vegan diet has long been criticised because they tend to be naturally low in nutrients like vitamin B12, omega-3 fats, iron, iodine, calcium, and zinc (al important during pregnancy) [3]. And the lack of these nutrients may result in pregnancy complications, poor mother and infant health and, of course, nutrient deficiency [4].

However, experts point out that you should not just downplay a vegan diet like that because vegan women may have a lower risk of postpartum depression, C-section delivery, and maternal or infant mortality, and these are facts [5][6].

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In addition to this, experts say that women who follow a vegan diet are generally at no greater risk of pregnancy complications than women who do not. So, a well-balanced vegan diet is considered safe for all periods of life, including pregnancy, and all it takes is careful planning, with the guidance of a nutritionist and your doctor [7].

Here are some scientifically-proven benefits of a vegan diet during pregnancy:

  • Plant-based diets are normally rich in fibre but low in sugar and fat, protecting against gestational diabetes or high blood sugar levels during pregnancy [8].
  • A vegan diet prevents excess weight gain during pregnancy.
  • The high fibre content in a vegan diet may guard against preeclampsia (caused by a rise in blood pressure during pregnancy) [9].
  • Some studies have pointed out that following a vegan diet during pregnancy may help prevent DNA damage and reduce your baby's risk of certain developmental issues [10][11].
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Is A Vegan Diet Beneficial During Pregnancy? Vegan Sources Of Essential Nutrients During Pregnancy

While pointing out the benefits of following a vegan diet during pregnancy, it is also important to shine a light on its downsides as well - so you may choose accordingly based on the facts. As a vegan diet is entirely devoid of animal products, it lacks certain nutrients, which, if not compensated, may harm both the mother and the baby's health.

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A vegan diet does not contain/has low levels of the following nutrients:

  • Vitamin D: Insufficient levels may increase your risk of preeclampsia, low birth weight, and miscarriage. Vegan sources of vitamin D are mushrooms, fortified orange juice, cereals, soy milk, rice milk and almond milk [12]. And, of course, plenty of sunlight.
  • Iron: While there are plenty of vegan iron food sources such as lentils, tofu, spinach, beans and Swiss chard, studies have pointed out that your body does not absorb non-heme iron from plant foods as it does the heme iron in animal products. Note: Heme iron is found only in meat, poultry, seafood, and fish, so heme iron is the type of iron that comes from animal proteins in our diet. Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods like grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds [13].
  • Vitamin B12: Mostly vegan diets lack vitamin B12, which may increase your risk of miscarriage, gestational diabetes, preterm birth, and malformations [14]. Plant-based or vegan sources of vitamin B12 include nutritional yeast, fortified plant milk (soy, almond, coconut, rice), tempeh, fortified breakfast cereals, algae/seaweed and mushrooms.
  • Omega-3 fats: This one is essential during pregnancy, and vegans tend to have low blood levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the two omega-3s important for your baby's eyes, brain, and nervous system [15]. Vegan sources of omega-3 fats are chia seeds, Brussels sprouts, algal oil (derived from algae), hemp seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds and perilla oil.
  • Protein: Insufficient protein intake may slow your baby's growth and development. While vegan diets are rich in protein, such as seitan, lentils, chickpeas and beans, green peas, tofu, tempeh, edamame, hempseeds etc., they can be difficult to digest during your pregnancy [16].

In addition to these, keep an eye out for calcium, zinc and choline intake, too, as these nutrients are also important for your health and your baby's health. Calcium sources for vegans include sesame seeds, tahini, green leafy vegetables, tofu, pulses and brown and white bread.

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Zinc sources for vegans include beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, walnuts, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, wholemeal bread and quinoa. And lastly, choline source for vegans includes legumes, tofu, green vegetables, potatoes, nuts, seeds, grains, and fruit [17].

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What A Vegan Can Eat During Pregnancy

Below is a list of safe and healthy foods that a vegan can eat during pregnancy [18].

  • Legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils.
  • Nuts and seeds.
  • Tofu, seitan, and tempeh.
  • Calcium-fortified yoghurts and plant milks.
  • Whole grains, cereals, and pseudocereals such as quinoa and buckwheat.
  • Fermented or sprouted plant foods such as Ezekiel bread, miso, tempeh, natto, pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha.
  • Purple, red, and orange fruits and vegetables, as well as leafy green vegetables.
  • Nutritional yeast (added to foods).

Some nutrients are difficult or even impossible to obtain from whole plant foods alone; therefore, you may be directed by your doctor to take certain supplements such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fats, iodine, choline and folate [19].

Note: Experts suggest that sprouting, fermenting and cooking with cast iron pans may enhance your absorption of certain nutrients, such as iron and zinc.

Foods to avoid during vegan pregnancy: If you're following a vegan diet while pregnant, apart from avoiding animal products, avoid alcohol, caffeine, overly processed foods such as mock meats, vegan cheeses, raw sprouts and unpasteurised juice [20].

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On A Final Note…

If you are planning to follow a vegan diet during your pregnancy, consult with your doctor first and check to see if the diet is a fitting and nourishing one for you and your baby. More studies are required to fully understand the benefits of a vegan diet during pregnancy than a normal diet.

Caution: Please note that the above-mentioned benefits only apply to well-planned vegan diets that provide the right amounts of important nutrients.

Story first published: Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 15:19 [IST]