Following a well-planned vegan or plant-based diet during your pregnancy or when breastfeeding is safe and healthy, and may have health benefits. In this article, you’ll read what these benefits are and you’ll learn what to pay attention to when eating plant-based during these stages of life.
The benefits of eating plant-based
The food you eat during your pregnancy affects your health and that of your baby. Women that ate plant-based and eat a lot of vegetables during their pregnancy, may have a lower risk for pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes (1, 2). Besides that, women who eat plant-based are less likely to gain too much weight during their pregnancies (3, 4).
The benefits of plant-based nutrition go beyond just the time that you’re pregnant. Research showed that children from mothers who ate a lot of animal protein during their pregnancy, were more likely to be overweight 20 years later (5). Research also showed that a high consumption of fruit and vegetables during the pregnancy, reduces the child’s risk for asthma, eczema, diabetes type 1, neural tube defects and childhood cancer (2).
Important topics when eating plant-based
The largest organization of dietitians worldwide, the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, states that a well-planned plant-based diet is appropriate for all stages of life, including pregnant women, women who breastfeed and young children. But what topics are important to pay attention to when you eat plant-based during these stages of life?
1. Eat enough
During your pregnancy, your caloric needs increase: about 300 extra calories during the second trimester (week 1-week 26), 450 extra calories during the third trimester (week 27-week 42) and 500 extra calories when exclusively breastfeeding. Note that these amounts strongly differ person to person.
Your needs for most vitamins and minerals increase even more. So, for these extra calories you need, preferably choose foods that offer a lot of nutrients too. For example, an extra serving of whole grains, leafy greans, and 1-2 extra servings of legumes and nuts or seeds.
2. Include all important food groups
The five food groups of a wholesome plant-based diet are:
3. Whole grains and starches
5. Nuts and seeds
Sometimes, I hear from my clients that they were advised to eat very little to no grains, legumes or soy (which is a legume), because these foods ‘aren’t healthy’. This is simply note true. To get all the nutrients you need, it’s important that you eat every food group daily and don’t exclude certain food groups.
Extra tip: by adding a source of vitamin C to every meal, the iron in that meal is absorbed better. For example, add a piece of fruit rich in vitamin C (kiwifruit, orange, grapes) to your breakfast and lunch, and add a vegetable rich in vitamin C (broccoli, yellow bell pepper) to your dinner.
3. Eat more foods rich in fat and protein
As mentioned before, when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding you need more calories and nutrients. It’s important to mention that unrefined plant foods have a much lower caloric density than processed and animal foods. This simply means that a plate full of plant foods contain less calories than a plate full of animal and processed foods.
For this reason, you should eat a little more of food groups 3 to 5 in proportion to the other groups, during these stages of life. To use as an approximate guideline: 1/3 fruits and vegetables, 1/3 whole grains and starches, 1/3 legumes, nuts and seeds. By eating a variety of foods from all these groups, you can make sure to get all the nutrients you need from food.
4. Take a prenatal
You might be in your first trimester when you’re reading this and be feeling nauseous just from the thought of food. When you can’t eat a lot of keep a lot of food in, or only feel hungry for very specific foods, it can be difficult to meet your nutrient needs. Whilst you actually need more nutrients during this time. For this reason, I advise to take a good prenatal during your pregnancy, so you don’t need to worry when you’re not eating as healthy as you’d wish. What you should pay attention to when picking a prenatal, is that it contains enough folic acid, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, zink, iodine and choline. Keep in mind that you need more B12 than most prenatal vitamins contain: 50 mcg a day (6).
5. Use plant-based dairy with added calcium
When using plant-based replacements for dairy, it’s important to pick ones that are fortified with calcium and B-vitamins. Take 2 to 3 servings of these a day to help meet your calcium needs. Also, make sure to eat plenty of other product that contain a lot of calcium, such as leafy greens (kale, turnip greens, bok choy), tofu, soy products and dried fruits (figs, apricots, dates). Preferably choose soy or pea based products, these contain the most protein and other important nutrients.
6. Consume enough ALA
Important omega 3 fatty acids are ALA, EPA and DHA. Good sources of ALA are broken flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, flax oil, soy oil and canola oil. Preferably use unrefined fats instead of too much oil, since unrefined fats also contain a lot of other nutrients which you need. You can use these oils mentioned as alternatives for other types of oil (such as olive and sunflower), which contain more omega 6. Try to avoid fats and oils that are solid at room temperature.
7. Supplement DHA and EPA
Your body converts small amounts of APA to EPA and DHA, but not enough. Natural sources of EPA and DHA are algae, fish and shellfish. Many fish oil supplements are contaminated with dioxins, PCB’s and other toxins (7). An omega 3 supplement form algae oil gives the same fatty acids without this contamination.
The recommendation for adults is 250 mg EPA and DHA a day. When you’re pregnant, you’ll need an additional 100-200 mg DHA (8). However, a large, recent study shows that 500 mg DHA a day reduces the risks to premature birth and a low birth weight (9). I recommend to take daily a supplement with at least 350 mg DHA and EPA, and preferably 500 mg DHA. For the latter, you would probably need to take double the serving that’s recommended on the packaging.
This article gives important advice about plant-based nutrition during your pregnancy and lactation, but is not a complete guide during these stages of life. Nor is it a replacement to personal advice from your dietitian, doctor or midwife.
1. Sebastiani, G., Herranz Barbero, A., Borrás-Novell, C., Alsina Casanova, M., Aldecoa-Bilbao, V., Andreu-Fernández, V., Pascual Tutusaus, M., Ferrero Martínez, S., Gómez Roig, M. D., & García-Algar, O. (2019). The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diet during Pregnancy on the Health of Mothers and Offspring. Nutrients, 11(3), 557. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11030557
2. Pistollato, F., Sumalla Cano, S., Elio, I., Masias Vergara, M., Giampieri, F., & Battno, M. Plant-Based and Plant-Rich Diet Patterns during Gestation: Beneficial Effects and Possible Shortcomings. (2015). Advances in Nutrition, 6(5), 581-591. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.115.009126
3. Streuling, I., Beyerlein, A., Rosenfeld, E., Schukat, B., & von Kries, R. (2011). Weight gain and dietary intake during pregnancy in industrialized countries–a systematic review of observational studies. Journal of perinatal medicine, 39(2), 123–129. https://doi.org/10.1515/jpm.2010.127
4. Stuebe, A. M., Oken, E., & Gillman, M. W. (2009). Associations of diet and physical activity during pregnancy with risk for excessive gestational weight gain. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology, 201(1), 58.e1–58.e588. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajog.2009.02.025
5. Maslova, E., Rytter, D., Bech, B. H., Henriksen, T. B., Rasmussen, M. A., Olsen, S. F., & Halldorsson, T. I. (2014). Maternal protein intake during pregnancy and offspring overweight 20 y later. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 100(4), 1139–1148. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.113.082222
6. Greger, M. (2011, 12 september). Optimum Nutrition Recommendations. Retrieved May 20, 2021, from https://nutritionfacts.org/2011/09/12/dr-gregers-2011-optimum-nutrition-recommendations/
7. Costa, J. G., Vidovic, B., Saraiva, N., do Céu Costa, M., Del Favero, G., Marko, D., … Fernandes, A. S. (2019). Contaminants: a dark side of food supplements? Free radical research, 53(sup1), 1113-1135. https://doi.org/10.1080/10715762.2019.1636045
8. EFSA (2010). Scientific Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for fats, including saturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, and cholesterol. EFSA Journal, 8(3),1461. https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1461
9. Middleton, P., Gomersall, J. C., Gould, J. F., Shepherd, E., Olsen, S. F., & Makrides, M. (2018). Omega-3 fatty acid addition during pregnancy. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 11(11), CD003402. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD003402.pub3