Vegan diets exclude all animal products and emphasize nutrient-dense plant foods like legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Well-planned vegan diets rich in plant-based foods can be beneficial to health. However, by excluding animal-based foods, following a vegan diet can make it more difficult to get the recommended amount of some nutrients. As nutrient needs are higher during pregnancy, some may wonder if it’s safe for pregnant women to follow a vegan diet. This article summarizes the potential health benefits and specific nutrients to focus on if you’re following a vegan diet while pregnant.
Vegan diets can offer a variety of health benefits. They tend to be rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains (and many of these foods are rich in fiber and antioxidants), which is one reason why vegan diets have been associated with positive health outcomes, such as lower LDL cholesterol, improved blood glucose levels (in people with type 2 diabetes) and lower blood pressure.
During pregnancy, eating patterns that are higher in fiber, as vegan diets tend to be, are associated with a decreased risk of developing gestational diabetes. Some research shows that pregnant women following a vegan diet may have a lower risk of cesarean section (C-section) delivery, maternal or infant mortality, and postpartum depression.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has issued an official position supporting the healthfulness of appropriately planned vegan diets during pregnancy while noting the importance of obtaining certain key nutrients (which vegan diets can often lack) through supplementation and fortified foods. Let’s review the specific nutrients, food sources and potential supplements to be aware of if following a vegan diet while pregnant.
Special Nutrients of Interest
Vitamin B-12 is important for making DNA and in keeping our nerves and blood cells healthy, in addition to helping prevent megaloblastic anemia. Vitamin B-12 is found in animal-based foods, so vegan diets do not naturally contain this vitamin in sufficient quantities. Pregnant women following a vegan diet should check with their physician to determine whether or not a B-12 supplement is needed and which method of supplementation (often injection or in capsule form) is best for them. A B-12 deficiency may increase the risk of adverse maternal and neonatal outcomes, such as preterm birth.
Omega-3 fatty acids
EPA and DHA are types of omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for the healthy development of a baby’s brain, eyes and nervous system. Those following a vegan diet can get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet, but they tend to have lower levels of EPA and DHA because these are mainly found in cold-water fatty fish like salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and some cooking oils (e.g., canola, flaxseed and soybean oils) are plant sources of a type of omega-3 fatty acid (ALA), which is converted to EPA and DHA in the body.
Iron helps get oxygen from our lungs to our tissues while also being essential for physical growth, neurological development, cellular function and the synthesis of some hormones. Although iron is found in both plant and animal sources, our bodies don’t absorb iron from plant foods as well as they do iron from animal products. All pregnant women, not just vegans, are at risk for iron deficiency, because iron needs during pregnancy increase significantly. In fact, about 16% of pregnant women in the U.S. are considered iron-deficient (including nearly 3% with iron-deficiency anemia), which puts them at risk for complications such as low birth weight. Health authorities such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend some form of iron supplementation to help prevent iron-deficiency anemia during pregnancy.
Iodine plays a key role in the early development of our skeletal and central nervous systems. Iodine is found in animal sources like fish (e.g., cod and tuna), shrimp, other seafood, and dairy products (e.g., milk, yogurt and cheese). The best vegan source of iodine is seaweed. Insufficient iodine intake can lead to poor infant growth and impaired thyroid function.
Calcium is necessary for bone health, cardiovascular and muscle function, and nervous system signaling. Calcium is found in plant and animal food sources such as dairy, dark leafy greens like kale, collard greens and collards, soy beans and soy products made with calcium, some types of nuts and seeds, as well as many fortified foods. Insufficient calcium intake during pregnancy may increase maternal risk of preeclampsia, fractures and bone disease.
Zinc is a necessary component for much of the activity within our cells, including DNA and protein synthesis. It also supports the body’s immune function, growth, development and wound healing. Pregnant women following a vegan diet often do not consume enough zinc. Zinc is found mostly in animal food sources and, in the case of a vegan diet, zinc intake may be decreased by the intake of absorption inhibitors such as phytic acid, which is present in cereals and grains.
Vitamin D is important for calcium absorption, immune function and brain health. Many adults are low in vitamin D because it is found in relatively few foods. Top food sources of vitamin D tend to be animal-based foods (e.g., fatty fish, milk, egg yolks and liver), so pregnant women following a vegan diet should be aware of this potential nutrient deficiency. Some research suggests that vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy may impact autoimmune disease and neuropsychological development.
The available evidence shows that well-planned vegan diets are considered safe during pregnancy; however, they require a strong awareness to maintain a balanced intake of key nutrients. Although it’s true that many physicians recommend a prenatal vitamin for women of child-bearing age regardless of the diet they follow, it’s best to work with your health care provider to make sure you are consuming adequate amounts of nutrients from the foods and supplements that are required for the optimal health of you and your baby.
The information in this article should not substitute for individualized care received from your doctor.
For more information, check out these pregnancy and infant feeding resources:
- Healthy Eating During Pregnancy Fact Sheet
- So Long, Seafood? Debunking Myths About Eating Fish During Pregnancy
- Is It Safe To Consume Caffeine While Pregnant?
- First Year Feeding Practices [Video]
This article contains contributions from Alyssa Pike, RD, Kris Sollid, RD and Ali Webster, RD, PhD.