A healthy vegan diet before and during pregnancy helps you have a vivacious and robust baby! Want some proof – see the gorgeous photos of four former Viva! staff, now mums of beautiful, strong vegan kiddies.
By Juliet Gellatley, founder & director of Viva!, nutritional therapist and mum of twin sons
Having a baby is truly momentous – you want to do everything you can to give your little one the best start in life. So suddenly your vegan diet is open to scrutiny in a way it never has been, including by yourself, as the enormity of being responsible not just for yourself, but this whole new person growing inside of you, hits. Some health professionals are well informed and others simply are not and they may even try to persuade you to give up on being vegan. Don’t listen! When pregnant I was told I was the only mother of twins they had known not to be anaemic, I proudly responded: “It is because I have a healthy vegan diet packed with foods brimming in iron.” They looked surprised but couldn’t argue! By allowing health pros to praise your health status and afterwards telling them you are vegan, throws them in a very satisfying (and hopefully educational) way.
The truth is, a balanced vegan diet is packed with disease busting, body and brain nurturing nutrients and is ideal for a healthy pregnancy. Just as importantly, a vegan diet particularly lacks the nasties you need to avoid - saturated fats, cholesterol, concentrated pesticides, cancer promoters, dioxins and mercury. The latter two are in practically all fish.
And few people realise that cow's milk contains a cocktail of pus, hormones and growth factors, including those linked to breast cancer.
A healthy pregnancy should just be an extension of your normally healthy diet. If you eat well anyway, then eating right for your unborn child won’t be such a radical change. If, however, your diet has always been based around junk food, meat and dairy produce, then it’s time it wasn’t, for both your sakes, and of course the animals! The secret of healthy eating before and during pregnancy is variety but focusing on wholegrains (3 servings daily), pulses (peas, beans and lentils of all types) plus unsalted mixed nuts* and seeds (2-3 portions daily), and fresh fruit and vegetables (7-10 servings daily), as well as some healthy essential fats and vitamin B12 fortified foods.
There is plenty of scope for adventurous, creative cookery. With herbs, spices, stock cubes, flavourings such as soya sauce and creamed coconut, soya cheese and a host of other extras, you can create the most wonderfully exotic dishes, as well as all the traditional favourites. For inspiration try Vegan Recipe Club.
A weighty issue
Being underweight or overweight affects your baby. Many studies show that mums who under eat increase their child’s risk of developing obesity and related diseases (eg heart disease, diabetes, cancer). It is believed that the foetus makes physiological adaptations to the ‘famine’ to prepare him or herself for life after birth. Far from being protective, these changes make the child more vulnerable to obesity and disease.
Recent research has also shown that when mums eat a high fat and/or high sugar diet during pregnancy it can result in their baby being predisposed to obesity and their children having metabolic syndrome (the precursor to diabetes type 2). To state the obvious, it’s important to not under or overeat during pregnancy! And it’s important to eat the right types of foods.
How much energy does a woman need during pregnancy?
(Calories are sometimes called kilocalories or Kcals.)
- A woman who is not pregnant needs approximately 2,100 calories per day
- A pregnant woman needs approximately 2,500 calories per day
- A breastfeeding woman needs approximately 3,000 calories per day
Increasing your nutrients for pregnancy
During pregnancy, your daily nutrient requirements do increase - but you don’t need to eat twice as much! The growing baby gets all his or her nourishment from mum through the umbilical cord, so diet is very important. If mum is lacking in any vitamins and nutrients her baby might lack them too.
Iron, B vitamins (especially folic acid) as well as beta carotene, C and D, calcium, zinc and protein are all needed in greater amounts. It’s not surprising - you’re making a whole new person.
Protein is needed for growth, repair of tissue and protection against infection and is high in all types of pulses and seeds
The humble soya bean, particularly when eaten as edamame, is very high in protein – comprised of all the protein building blocks (amino acids).
Quinoa seeds also contains all essential amino acids. Use as you would rice.
Preeclampsia, causing reduced blood flow to the placenta and premature delivery, has been attributed to insufficient protein so it is prudent to increase your intake. The good news - medical studies on 775 vegan mothers showed them to be less prone to preeclampsia.
- Protein Sources: Beans, peas and lentils, nuts*, seeds, brown rice, wholegrain breakfast cereals, wholemeal bread and wholegrain pasta.
Avoid saturated animal fats and go for unsaturated types - the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. These have many functions and are a main constituent of the brain and eyes. The developing foetus needs a constant supply of omega-3 and this can only come from mum!
- Sources of Good Fat:
Omega-3 fats are found in flaxseed (linseed) ground and sprinkled on breakfast cereal. Use flaxseed oil in salad dressings or poured cold into soups, casseroles, pasta dishes etc. Don’t cook it as heat destroys the omega-3s. Hemp seeds and hemp oil, cold-pressed rapeseed (canola) oil, dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, some nuts (walnuts and walnut oil particularly), soya beans and soya oil and wheat germ.
Omega-6 fats are found in seeds and their oils - sunflower, sesame, corn, grapeseed, hemp and rape, some nuts (particularly pecans, pistachios and walnuts), rice bran and soya beans. Again, don’t heat!
One of the best oils to cook with is virgin olive oil - high in omega-9, a beneficial, non-essential fatty acid.
As for getting omega-3s from fish - don’t! Pregnant women are strongly advised by government to limit their oily fish intake because of contamination with pollutants that can damage the nervous system, affect development and create learning problems. They are also advised to avoid cod liver oil as it contains excessive vitamin A which can damage your unborn baby.
A mineral needed for healthy nervous systems, blood clotting and bone and tooth formation in mother and baby. It may surprise some that cow’s milk does not guarantee strong bones – in fact, it may contribute to osteoporosis.
- Calcium Sources: Seeds and nuts - especially sesame and almonds*, dark green leafy vegetables and pulses and tofu.
The need for iron increases during pregnancy because both mother and baby are creating new blood. About one-third of pregnant women are mildly anaemic. When pregnant with twins, my doctor was staggered by my iron results. He said “you’re the first mum of twins to be high in iron – it just doesn’t happen.”
- Iron Sources: Dried fruits - figs, apricots, dates and prunes, nuts* and seeds. All pulses, tofu, soya milk, hummus and fortified breakfast cereals, wholewheat and wheatgerm, green leafy vegetables and wholegrains are also useful sources. Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron so eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.)
Probably plays the biggest role in reproduction. A deficiency increases the chance of miscarriage. Needed for hormone balance, development of the egg, successful fertilisation and implantation.
- Zinc Sources: Beans and lentils, yeast, nuts, seeds and wholegrain cereals. Pumpkin seeds are a very rich source.
Vitamins A, C and E
Vegans get plenty of vitamin A from beta-carotene (your body turns beta-carotene from plants into active vitamin A). It is needed to implant the fertilised egg.
- Vitamin A Sources: Carrots, sweet potatoes, red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, green leafy vegetables, watercress, mangoes, apricots, cantaloupe melons and romaine lettuce.
All fruits and veg contain vitamin C but some are particularly rich sources. It keeps the protective membrane around your baby strong.
- Vitamin C Sources: Kiwi fruit, berries and currants, fresh oranges, grapefruit, broccoli, spinach, cabbage, peas, blackcurrants, strawberries.
Vitamin E protects vital RNA and DNA reducing risk of congenital defects.
- Vitamin E sources: Vegetable oils, wholegrains, tomatoes, nuts*, asparagus, spinach, apples, carrots, celery and avocados.
These three ACE vitamins are vital antioxidants that also protect against many diseases - there is very little in meat!
The B Vitamins
Many B vitamins are involved in releasing energy from food and help to aid growth and repair of the body.
- B Group Vitamin Sources: Wholegrains, including wholemeal bread, brown rice and wholemeal pasta, yeast extracts (eg Marmite), pulses, nuts, seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, avocados and bananas. Also many fortified breakfast cereals.
Folic acid (vitamin B9) is required for protein synthesis, formation of blood, metabolism of DNA (our genetic blueprint) and helps prevent neural tube defects (Spina Bifida) in the developing foetus. It is therefore essential before conception and during early pregnancy.
- Folic Acid Sources: Most vegetables, especially dark green leafy ones, nuts, pulses and avocados.
Vitamin B12 is vital for you and your baby's nervous system and blood formation. No matter what your diet, take a B12 supplement and ensure a daily serving of foods fortified with B12.
- B12 Sources: Fortified breakfast cereals, yeast extracts (Marmite) and fortified soya or almond milk, preferably take a B12 supplement.
Vegetarians beware - dairy may cause food poisoning. Ripened soft cheeses such as Brie and Camembert must be avoided as they may contain listeria which can lead to listeriosis and possible miscarriage, still-birth or severe illness in a new-born baby. Eggs carry the risk of salmonella.
Caffeine in coffee and cola have been suspected (not proved) of producing birth defects or miscarriage.
Alcohol is a no-go and smoking is clearly bad for you and your baby, associated with low birth weight and cot death. It’s never too late to give up.
Vegan women have been producing healthy, beautiful babies for thousands of years. Trust your body and mother nature. We are a great ape and essentially evolved to thrive on a vegan diet. For reassurance see Wheat Eaters or Meat Eaters.
Vegan diets are the most natural in the world so have faith and a wonderful, happy pregnancy!
Juliet is the co-author of Vegetarian & Vegan Mother and Baby Guide with Rose Elliot, published by Viva!
Pregnant or lactating women from allergy-prone (atopic) families - should avoid eating peanuts and nuts entirely as sensitisation to them can occur in the womb and later through breastfeeding. Children of atopic mothers shouldn’t be given them until at least three years old or when recommended by a doctor. But for the majority of infants, nuts are an important addition to the diet and can be introduced from six months old in the form of smooth nut butters. Whole nuts should not be given to children under five years of age due to the risk of choking.
Rhiannon Purnell, Bristol - Former Web Manager for Viva!
Gave birth to Alfie in July 2017
“I have enjoyed my vegan pregnancy and everyone tells me I’m very fit – cycling to and from work all the way through
– up to eight and a half months pregnant!
The nurse told me at the end of my pregnancy that I had wonderfully healthy iron levels, and that they have gone up in the last trimester (unlike many of my meat eating counterparts who are anaemic in pregnancy). She also said my blood pressure was “beautiful” and “whatever I am doing, I’m doing it right!” I was well chuffed and am so in love with my little boy!”
Claire Morley, Bridgend - Former Admin & Festivals Co-ordinator for Viva!
With Lena, pictured at 9 months
“I'd been vegan for 18 years when I became pregnant with Lena and I was proud to be eating the healthiest diet for my unborn baby. I made sure my diet was varied with lots of pulses, fruits and veggies, nuts and a lot of iron rich foods. I spoke to my midwife about my diet and she was very supportive. During my pregnancy I loved how active my little vegan baby was and I was so pleased we were both happy and healthy throughout. Lena was born super healthy and chubby at 42 weeks. She was 10 pound 7 ounces, taking after both my partner and myself being tall. I exclusively breastfed Lena for 6 months when we then started baby led weaning. Now at 9 months Lena eats what we eat, she has a varied vegan diet and loves her greens! I'm still breastfeeding on demand and it's proved worthwhile, Lena is following her curve on the 91st percentile and we couldn't be happier.”
Jo Lacey, Brighton - Former Director's PA for Viva!
With Melika, pictured at 1 year
“I’ve been vegan for more than 20 years and I had a healthy pregnancy followed by a natural home birth. Breastfeeding our daughter, Melika, has given her a good source of natural immunity and this combined with a vegan diet has meant that she is rarely poorly. I wanted to do the best for my baby and it made sense to offer her foods that I knew to be healthy and cruelty-free. Melika is really thriving on a diet of fruits and vegetables, lentils, nuts and soya products such as tofu and vegan sausages and lots of wholegrains.”
Helen Wilson, Swansea - Former Viva!life editor & PR manager for Viva!
Pregnant with Iolo
"Having two healthy vegan pregnancies was really easy for me. Ensuring I ate even more fresh fruit and vegetables than usual wasn't a problem and I just made sure I ticked all the nutritional boxes by creating lots of wholesome meals containing good fats, B vitamins and iron. Viva!'s Foods for Fertility and Pregnancy Wallchart helped me a lot too. Being vegan gave my babies the best starts in life – both were healthy weights, Iolo being a fantastic 9lb 8oz and he and Otter continue to flourish."