Plant-Based Nutrition in Pregnancy

Appropriately planned plant-based eating patterns can be healthy and nutritionally adequate for all stages of life, including pregnancy. During pregnancy, it is important to choose a variety of foods that provide enough calories and nutrients for you and your baby.

When you look up vegan diets in pregnancy, there are several alarming headlines. However like any way of eating – a well-planned, nutritious diet with appropriate supplements is healthy for mother and baby, including vegetarian and vegan diets. I have worked with expecting mothers following a vegan lifestyle, and in this article I share guidelines and tips specific to supplementation for healthy plant-based nutrition in pregnancy.

Calories in Pregnancy

In pregnancy, adding extra calories during your second and third trimesters helps with gaining the amount of weight needed to support your baby’s growth and development. On average, you could be adding 350-500 calories/day in your second and third trimesters based on whether it is a single or multiple gestation and based on your pre-pregnancy weight. Your Physician and Registered Dietitian will help plot your weight gain and can provide advice on your specific calorie targets.

Pre-pregnancy
BMI (kg/m
2)
Category Total Weight
Gain Range for Singleton
Total Weight Gain Range
for Pregnancy with Twins
<18.5 Underweight 28-40 lbs
18.5-24.9 Normal Weight 25-35 lbs 37-54 lbs
25.0-29.9 Overweight 15-25 lbs 31-50 lbs
>30.0 Obese 11-20 lbs 25-42 lbs
adult-belly-body-54289
Macronutrients for Pregnancy
Carbohydrate

Avoid low-carb diets during pregnancy as the rapid growth of the fetus requires that ample amounts of energy in the form of glucose (carbohydrates) be available to the fetus at all times.

Protein

For single gestation, an additional 25 grams/day of protein is recommended to meet the needs of pregnancy. For multiple gestation, protein needs increase by 40 g/day in your 2nd trimester and 48 g/day in the 3rd trimester.

Check out the table here to understand how much protein you can get from different plant-based foods.

Fat

The essential fatty acids omega-6 and omega-3 are necessary for brain and eye formation. Supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids increases the availability to the fetus and is advised – the recommendation is 1.4 g/day of omega-3.

Within the omega-3 supplements, aim for an intake of at least 300 mg/day EPA and DHA during pregnancy and lactation, of which 200 mg/day are DHA. While plant-based sources of EPA and DHA (algae) are not commonly eaten in North America, these can be found in DHA/EPA supplements in veggie cap form.

capsules-close-up-color-208518

Nutrients in Pregnancy

In addition to eating adequate calories and macronutrients, the need for certain nutrients increase during pregnancy, specifically for Iron, Vitamin D, B12, Zinc, and Folate. Supplementation is recommended for these key vitamins and minerals in a plant-based pregnancy.

Iron
Recommended Dietary Allowance Women 19 – 50 years
Non-pregnant Pregnant Breastfeeding
Iron (mg/day) 18 27 9

Pregnancy places a high demand for iron on the body, as your blood volume expands to carry the pregnancy and as your baby demands iron for normal development. During the last 3 months of pregnancy, baby is accumulating iron for use during early life and fetal iron stores are meant to last the child until approximately 6 months of life.

Taking a prenatal multivitamin with 27 mg of iron will help you meet your daily iron needs. You can also add in food sources such as spinach, swiss chard, beans, lentils, peas, edamame, enriched cereals, oatmeal, cream of wheat, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, nuts (almonds, pistachios, cashews), sesame seeds, pumpkin and squash seeds and hummus.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is necessary for proper bone and teeth formation. It is recommended that all pregnant and lactating mothers supplement with 2000 IU (50 µg/day) of Vitamin D through the winter months to maintain sufficiency and 600 IU/day during months with more sunlight.

Since Vitamin D is found in animal foods, if you are looking for plant-based food sources, these will need to be Vitamin D-fortified foods such as fortified plant-based beverages.

drink-girl-glass-576831

Vitamin B12
Recommended Dietary Allowance Women 19 – 50 years
Non-pregnant Pregnant Breastfeeding
Vitamin B12 (mcg/day) 2.4 2.6 2.8

Vitamin B12 is essential for the production of red blood cells, the manufacturing of genetic material, and healthy functioning of the nervous system. Deficiency of B12 at the start of pregnancy may increase risk of birth defects such as neural tube defects and may contribute to preterm delivery.

When following a plant-based diet, you must regularly consume reliable sources – meaning B12 fortified foods or B12 containing supplements. If you are taking a prenatal/ postpartum multivitamin, you will be meeting your B12 needs.

Zinc
Recommended Dietary Allowance   Women 19 – 50 years
Non-pregnant Pregnant Breastfeeding
Zinc (mg/day) 8 11 12

Adequate zinc is extremely important during the first trimester, when organs are formed and may play a role in assisting in immune system development. Food preparation techniques such as soaking and sprouting beans, grains, nuts, and seeds, and leavening bread can increase zinc absorption.

On a plant-based diet, a supplement that includes 15 mg of zinc is advised throughout pregnancy. Zinc food sources include soy products, legumes, grains, seeds, and nuts – click here for a list of amounts of zinc in foods.

bowl-breakfast-cereal-bowl-949069

Folate
Recommended Dietary Allowance Women 19 – 50 years
Non-pregnant Pregnant Breastfeeding
Folate (mcg/day) 400 600 500

Folate is used in the manufacturing of neurotransmitters and is particularly important during early pregnancy because of its essential role in synthesizing DNA in the cells.

In preconception and pregnancy, 400 mcg of folic acid in supplement form appears to be adequate for the prevention of neural tube defects, the most common of which are spina bifida and anencephaly.

A prenatal multivitamin should be provided prior and during pregnancy to meet folate needs. Your physician can help prescribe a prenatal multivitamin for you. To understand your nutrient needs in a multivitamin, check out What to Look For in a Prenatal Multivitamin. Talk to your physician or registered dietitian about your particular needs and eating pattern before taking any supplements.

Calcium

Although Calcium is also necessary for proper bone formation in conjunction with Vitamin D, the recommendation for pregnant women is the same as it is for nonpregnant women at 1000 mcg/day.

A concern in plant-based diets is the bioavailability of calcium from plant foods, which is related to oxalate content of foods and, to a lesser degree, phytate and fiber.

  • Calcium is not absorbed as well from high-oxalate vegetables, such as spinach, beet greens, and Swiss chard, and may be as low 5%. These cannot be considered good sources of calcium, despite their high calcium content.
  • In comparison, absorption from low-oxalate vegetables, such as kale, turnip greens, Chinese cabbage, and bok choy, is about 50%.
  • Absorption from calcium-set tofu (made with a calcium salt) and from most fortified plant milks is similar to that from cow’s milk, at approximately 30%.
  • Other plant foods, such as white beans, almonds, tahini, figs, and oranges, provide moderate amounts of calcium with somewhat lower bioavailability (about 20%).

If you are not consuming these foods with high bioavailability, consider supplementationa prenatal multivitamin usually has 250 mg Calcium.

almonds-beverage-blur-1484553

There are several benefits for plant-based eating during pregnancy and when raising a child. Consuming a balanced plant-based diet early in life can establish healthy lifelong habits such as greater consumption of fruits and vegetables, lower risk for overweight or obesity, and significant disease risk reduction. For more information on specific nutrients during pregnancy, lactation and in infancy, feel free to connect and I can send you a more detailed presentation.


I hope this article will help you plan supplementation in addition to a nutritious diet during your pregnancy and beyond. Do you have more thoughts or questions on healthy plant-based eating and supplementation during pregnancy? Let me know in the comments below!

 

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