A Vegan or vegetarian diet and pregnancy: is it compatible?

Announcing a pregnancy can be rather stressful: “Am I going to be a good mother? and what happens if the pregnancy gets complicated? What should I eat? “. Any future mother would dream to live a perfect pregnancy without asking a billion existential questions (thank you hormones for making me spend the whole night thinking about the damn colour of the baby’s cradle, who right now, is the size of a pea …).

But vegetarian/vegan mothers have an additional concern: what if their diet puts the health of their baby at risk? Well today, I’ll give you all the info about the possible dangers of a vegetarian / vegan diet while being pregnant!

Bridging the needs of a pregnant woman who is vegetarian / vegan

As you can imagine, a mother’s needs are different from those of a typical woman. Your little baby needs energy, and lots of it!

A pregnant woman’s diet is based on two principles: a balanced diet with some increased needs. But is it possible to have a smooth pregnancy with a vegetarian or vegan diet?

Increase in iron requirements

Iron is the trace element that transports oxygen to the baby. Our needs are inevitably increased during pregnancy: it’s estimated that our iron requirements are almost double that of our normal needs once we have reached the third trimester:  30mg / day in the case of pregnancy against 16mg / day.

Most iron is consumed through meat however I’m not teaching you anything with that; a vegetarian or vegan, has to have a creative approach.

Luckily, plants also contain iron, especially green vegetables, but iron can also be found in seaweed, dark chocolate, legumes and oilseeds.

Iron from plants is not so well assimilated as that of animal’s iron, so try to eat foods rich in vitamin C which increases the absorption of iron. On the contrary, cut down on your intake of tea and coffee which decreases assimilation.

Increased Calcium and Vitamin D Requirements

During pregnancy, Calcium and Vitamin D play an essential role in the formation of the baby’s skeleton and teeth. It is therefore paramount for vegetarians to consume eggs, dairy products, oilseeds, mineral waters rich in calcium and green, leafy green vegetables to meet their daily needs.

Vegans are at a disadvantage as plant calcium is less well assimilated by the body than animal calcium. So watch out for your calcium intake so the baby can grow without difficulty!

My little tip: fill up on Vitamin D by regularly exposing yourself to the sun!

Increase in Folate requirements

If you went for a walk with your gynaecologist, he or she would probably tell you about the importance of folate whose supplementation is now mandatory to avoid abnormal neural development (i.e. Spina bifida). Luckily, future vegetarian / vegan mums can get that their own dose of folate from most dark green vegetables and whole grain cereals. So there’s no need to worry, between your supplements and daily food intake, you should be on top form!

Be careful with Omega 3

Another important link in the chain for “Pregnant and Vegetarian” and straight “Pregnant Women” is Omega 3, – a fatty acid which is essential to the baby’s neuronal development. Once again, there won’t be any problems for future vegetarian and vegan Mums as long as they consume high quality oilseeds (almonds, walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans …) and vegetable oils.

Vitamin B12 deficiency: watch out Vegans!

Vitamin B12 deficiency is the most worrying deficiency for vegetarian and vegan women as it is only found in animal products. For vegetarians, it is easier to overcome this deficiency by regularly eating eggs and dairy products, although their quantities remain low compared to meat.

During pregnancy, vitamin B12 levels gradually decline and that decrease can be potentially dangerous if starting levels are already low. After all, Vitamin B12 is essential for the development of the foetus, and if you are lacking in it then the chances of either suffering from a miscarriage, or having a baby with some sort of mental retardation, or producing a baby prematurely etc etc are far higher. I don’t want to scare you but, it’s important to remember that you are the only one who can give your baby everything he or she needs. Fortunately, there are alternatives to having to pick at a piece of chicken from the tip of the fork: vitamin B12 supplements. And for vegans, there should be no stress whatsoever; these days, there are 100% vegan dietary supplements. What a beautiful life it is?

The big question of soy in pregnant women

I wouldn’t be surprising anyone if i was to tell them that in order to fill their protein intake, Soybeans are very often the fundamental base of many vegetarians and vegans diets. Coming in many forms: steaks, juices, desserts, tofu, tempeh … soy fills the plates not only with whole vegetable proteins  but also phyto-oestrogens! Huh? What? Hang on, let me explain. Phytoestrogens, and more particularly iso-flavones, are present in large quantities in soybeans. The problem with these molecules is that they have a great similarity to estradiol, a female hormone. No convincing study has yet shown adverse effects in humans during pregnancy, but it is legitimate to worry about potential hormonal disturbances if you consume too much of it. And you know, hormones, during pregnancy, are very much (always) present! ANSES therefore recommends not to consume more than one food per day containing soy. Better to lean towards protein supplements to obtain all the essential amino acids!

And so ? Vegan or vegetarian diets and pregnancy, is it possible?

Rest assured, future vegetarian and vegan Mums, YES it is compatible. Nevertheless, some basic rules must be respected! Firstly, you should be aware that you are naturally following a diet which is prone to deficiencies, so it is important to inform your doctor of your eating habits from the start of your pregnancy. The doctor will therefore be able to ensure a more thorough follow-up, with regular blood tests and the provision of supplements if you have apparent deficiencies.

As far as it is known, there is no proof to suggest that any dangers exist for the children of vegetarian / vegan mothers as long as vitamin and mineral needs are met. However, it is advisable to talk regularly with our qualified nutritionists through our Pregnancy program to be sure you are doing things the right way.

Sources :

  • Ayoubi, L. E., & Comte, F. (2018). Les conséquences des régimes végétariens et végétaliens pendant la grossesse et la lactation, sur la femme enceinte, le fœtus, le nouveau-né et le nourrisson. La Revue Sage-Femme, 17(2), 54-62.
  • Piccoli, G. B., Clari, R., Vigotti, F. N., Leone, F., Attini, R., Cabiddu, G., … & Pani, A. (2015). Vegan–vegetarian diets in pregnancy: danger or panacea? A systematic narrative review. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 122(5), 623-633.
  • Craig, W. J., & Mangels, A. R. (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. Journal of the American dietetic association, 109(7), 1266-1282.

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