Pregnancy — Whether or not it’s your first time, the nine months will be a strange and exciting time, as your body sorts out new floods of hormones and adjusts to bearing a new life. What you eat will make a significant impact on your emotional and physical health, and, as a vegan, you need to be extra diligent about eating in a way that nurtures your growing baby. Vegan women can and do have happy, normal pregnancies and give birth to healthy, unimpaired babies. But it’s easy to wonder how to pack the most amount of nutrients for the two (or more) of you. Here are some of the most crucial foods to include in your vegan diet.
1. Keep it Nutty
Besides being delicious and high in satisfying fats, nuts are a virtual powerhouse of fiber, phytonutrients and the antioxidants vitamin E and selenium. They are one of nature’s best protein sources, and have consistently been linked to reduced risk of heart disease.
During pregnancy, Omega-3 fatty acid has been shown to help build the baby’s brain, form the retinas, and aid in the development of the nervous system. It also reduces the mother’s risk of preeclampsia and postpartum depression. Walnuts are a great source, as are seeds like pumpkin, chia, and flax.
Organic whole nut butters are delicious on whole wheat toast. You can also put almonds in your morning oatmeal for a subtle taste and extra magnesium, manganese, and vitamin E. Look for nut butter brands that have four ingredients or fewer — you don’t need all those preservatives in your body!
2. Berry Crucial
Craving something sweet? Strawberries are some of nature’s most luscious sweets. They are high in folate, a form of folic acid, which is a B vitamin which aids in the body’s generation of new cells. Moreover, a serving of eight medium-sized strawberries delivers more vitamin C than an orange. Raspberries are also great sources of folic acid, fiber, and zinc.
A 2008 study from the University of Texas followed 35,000 pregnant women over the course of four years, and determined pregnant diets high in folic acid (about 600 ug/day) drastically reduced the chance of premature birth and the associated risks. Folic acid should be taken by all women trying to get pregnant as well, because in the earliest fetal development it can reduce the risk of birth defects like spina bifida.
Great as a snack by themselves. Or throw frozen berries in the blender with almond or soy milk for a delicious smoothie.
3. Going Green
Dark leafy vegetables are bursting with good-for-you vitamins, particularly A and C, and minerals like calcium and iron. The cancer-fighting properties of collard greens are also well-documented and the plant-produced beta carotene and lutein can reduce risks of cancer.
Studies suggest eating at least one full serving of nutrient rich dark leafy vegetables during pregnancy promotes nutritionally-dense breast milk.
Make delicious kale chips: bake leaves in microwave for a few minutes, and you’ll have a salty, nutritional alternative to potato chips. Note: spinach has a compound called oxalic acid, which reduces the efficiency with which its iron is absorbed. Steam it to neutralize some of this acid, and enjoy with a dash of lemon juice.
4. Drink your milk (substitute)
A glass of soy, almond or rice milk fortified with vitamin D both provides a healthy dose of calcium, and can help fight mommy blues associated with hormonal changes. In fact, high doses of Vitamin D can be a powerful treatment for postpartum depression. As an added plus, it’s possible vegan women are immune to the risk of calcium depletion which can come from a high intake of animal protein.
It’s well known calcium is crucial for strong bones and teeth. However, the prevalent myth that if a pregnant woman doesn’t get enough calcium to provide for her baby, the fetus will take the calcium from her own body is just that — a myth! A woman needs to get enough calcium to provide for herself and her child. The U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance for calcium is around 1000 milligrams per day for pregnant and lactating women. This is recommended to meet both the maternal and fetal needs.
Soy milk comes in an array of flavors and is already a staple for many vegan women. Alternate sources include calcium-fortified tofu, orange juice, or (surprise!) figs.
5. Whole Grains
Anemia is common in all pregnant women, and vegans in particular should be aware that pregnant women need approximately 50% more iron during their pregnancy to provide for the baby’s blood supply. Here is what a whole wheat bagel can do: fight anemia, help ease constipation (a common pregnancy discomfort), and help release energy from muscles.
Your continued physical activity can prevent or reduce the risk of birth defects and depression, but a low iron level is one of the biggest contributors to lethargy during pregnancy. By getting enough iron, you can keep your energy levels high.
When buying wheat, choose organic to ensure it’s nutrients are intact. A handy rule is to choose breads and cereals whose ingredients a third-grader can read. Excellent whole grain sources also include brown rice, millet, quinoa, and oats. Toast a whole-wheat pita and fill it with almond butter and greens, or avocado and sprouts for extra protein.
Whole wheat also provides for a great source for fiber, B complex and protein.
6. Beans, Beans, Beans
Inexpensive, easy to prepare, and versatile, beans are a wholesome staple for a vegan diet. They are great sources of protein, iron, calcium, thiamine, and niacin.
During pregnancy, protein consumption is even more important. Protein is made of amino acids which are called the building blocks of human cells, and it is crucial to the developing fetus. Doctors generally recommend 60-75 grams per day. Also, niacin gives the baby energy and helps in the development of the placenta; thiamin helps development of the baby’s brain and central nervous system. Add cooked beans to any vegetable soup!
Fermented soy bean products like tempeh and miso are great as they contain healthy bacteria which speed up digestion, and the phytic acidphytic acid is neutralized by the culturing process. While soybeans is one of the best and easiest sources of protein, it is important to make sure the protein in your diet comes from different sources and you practice moderation.
This is an exciting time, and you should find a doctor and a dietitian who are understanding of your ethical and dietary needs and willing to work with you. The key to keeping a healthy vegan diet through pregnancy is eating a wide variety of all the good stuff — vegetables of every shape and color and limitless experiments with salad combinations. Congratulations, and good luck!
This article is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult with your physician and dietitian regarding your specific health and dietary needs before making any dietary or lifestyle changes.