Well, the cat is finally out of the bag. We are having a baby. A baby vegan….a weegan.
This whole journey has been a roller coaster of excitement, anxiety, joy, frustration, and pure wonder at our ability to create life. Not to mention how incredibly fascinating female bodies are, we can grow people…like a human farm…so weird.
When I was interviewing midwives, I wanted to make sure that I felt very comfortable with them and that they understood and respected my decision to eat plant based. I had heard too many horror stories of vegan women getting shamed or portrayed as “being selfish” or “inconsiderate” by choosing to be vegan during pregnancy. I wanted to nourish my growing baby and myself with a well-balanced, nutritionally sound whole foods plant-based diet, so I thought I would share some of my knowledge and my experience with you.
Sadly, people in the medical world, especially when it comes to women’s health and reproduction, still tell women that they NEED animal products in their diet in order to have successful, healthy fertility and pregnancies. Most of this information comes from very real needs of reproductive health. There are certain nutrients that women do need more of, or need to pay attention to during pregnancy such as:
- Vitamin D
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids
- and of course Vitamins A, K, C, E, and trace minerals.
Most women have been told that the “best” sources of these nutrients come from animal products. Yes, these products contain these nutrients, whether naturally (calcium in milk, iodine in fish, and protein in meat & eggs) or added in (b-12 and vitamin D are often injected into cows because they are not eating grass or getting sunlight). But just because these products contain these essential baby growing nutrients does not make them necessary. And, by no means are they the ONLY RELIABLE SOURCE.
Just because something is vegan does NOT make it healthy.
That is where educating yourself is of vital importance. You need to understand what it takes to develop a well-rounded diet that revolves around whole plant foods and minimizes processed or refined foods. You can very easily give into pregnancy cravings and aversions and live off of super sugary ginger ale, processed crackers, pickles, Oreo’s, non-dairy ice cream, bagels, chocolate, potato chips and takeout food. Just because you are taking a prenatal multivitamin does not give you permission to eat poorly.
A well-rounded pregnancy diet (and non-pregnancy diet) should revolve around:
- Whole Grains
- Beans & Legumes
- Leafy Greens & Vegetables
- Nuts & Seeds
- Appropriate supplements (b-12, D if you don’t get plenty of sunshine) *
- and minimize refined sugar, salt, refined carbohydrates (white flour, instant grains, etc.), and refined fats (margarine, oils, and shortenings).
Eating a variety of foods from these different food groups should give you the necessary nutritional coverage, but to put an emphasis on the “Pregnancy Nutrients” you should know which plants are packed with these special nutrients.
Best Sources of Pregnancy Nutrients in a Plant Based Diet
Folate: leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, mangoes, papayas, oranges, avocado, nuts, seeds, brussels sprouts, beans, peas, lentils, okra, cauliflower, beets, bell peppers, and more.
Calcium: enriched soymilk (unsweetened), tempeh, tofu, soy beans, white beans, spinach, tahini, edamame, chickpeas, chia seeds, oranges, adzuki beans, broccoli, figs, sweet potato, parsley, carrots, cabbage, almonds, quinoa, tomatoes, arugula, enriched orange juice, and more.
Iron: soy beans, white beans, tofu, green lentils, amaranth, chickpeas, edamame, blackstrap molasses, mung beans, peas, mushrooms, quinoa, spinach, beets, whole grain wheat bread, pumpkin, tahini, chia seeds, kale, goji berries, potatoes, bell peppers, sunflower seeds, oranges, kiwis, and more.
Protein: Lentils, Pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, tahini, almonds, pistachios, flax seeds, cashews, oats, soy beans, chia seeds, tofu, hazelnuts, walnuts, whole wheat, chickpeas, red beans, pecans, lima beans, macadamia nuts, peas, quinoa, spinach, potatoes, and more.
Iodine: iodized salt, seaweeds (dulse, nori, wakame, kombu), prunes, lima beans.
B-12: b-12 is a bacterium that blankets the earth, back in the good old days we could get enough b-12 just from eating the tiny amount of dirt that was left over on our garden produce. We don’t live in that world anymore. Most of our fresh food is mass produced and we triple wash and sanitize everything before it hits our mouths. To everyone, vegan and non-vegan, take a b-12 supplement.
Vitamin D: Is a hormone that is produced by our bodies when it synthesizes direct sunlight. Try to get some sun every day. If you can’t (because you are in an office all day, or you live in a colder climate) or have been tested for low levels of Vitamin D and are concerned, find a supplement that works for you.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Flax seeds (ground for optimal absorption), chia seeds, hemp seeds, seaweeds such as spirulina, beans, winter squash, leafy greens, berries, and wild rice. If you feel like you cannot get these foods in daily you can easily add in a Vegan Omega 3 or DHA/EPA supplement*, for a clean non-fishy taste I highly recommend the Dr. Fuhrman brand.
Vitamins A, K, C, E & trace minerals: the best and most abundant sources of these are FOUND IN PLANTS, eat a variety of foods and your will be covered almost instantly 🙂
Now, just adding these wonderful plant-based foods to your plate (especially if you are coming from the Standard American Diet) is going to be an incredible improvement to your health. You will be packing in a wider variety of nutrients along with the lord of nutrients: FIBER. But that’s just the first step. After we have made an effort to add these great foods to our diet we need to know how to combine them to set our digestive system up for optimal absorption. Our bodies’ ability to absorb nutrients, also known as bio-availability, is just as important as the nutrients themselves. Especially when you are pregnant. Pregnancy, although beautiful, tends to suppress your normal appetite. So, although your brain might want to eat a huge beautiful salad, your stomach might only let you eat a cup of cooked greens. Which is OK. Given this natural limitation that most pregnant women endure, we want to make the most of each meal even if it’s small. One way to make the nutrients in food more bio-available is to combine certain nutrient compounds.
Bioavailability Combinations Important for Pregnancy
Iron + Vitamin C
There are two forms of dietary iron; heme iron which is found in animal products and non-heme which is found in plants. On their own humans absorb heme iron more easily, because it is the same molecular structure of the iron that runs through our blood. Sadly, this tends to be the main argument against plant-based iron sources. But just because something is not as easily absorbed does not make it bad, it just needs a little assistance. Vitamin C, (which is abundant in the plant kingdom) when combined with iron rich foods optimizes the absorption. So, when you eat foods with iron make sure that you add a little vitamin c rich food.
Iron Rich Plant Foods: see above
Vitamin C Rich Plant Foods: oranges, grapefruit, kiwis, broccoli, cabbage, bell peppers, cauliflower, tomatoes, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, melons, pineapple, sweet & white potatoes, kale, papaya, lemons, limes, apricots, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and many more!
Fat Soluble Vitamins (A, D, E, K) + Fat
Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble, meaning that they are “able to dissolve” and be absorbed only in the presence of fat. So, whether you are getting your vitamins through plant sources or through supplements, make sure that you add a little plant fat to the mix to optimize your absorption. Now I have found that following a low-fat plant-based diet has been optimal for my health. So, when I say make sure you add a fat to your meal it does not need to be a huge amount (like an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy ice cream). We are talking a few tablespoons of tahini, or nut butters, a few ounces of nuts, a few slices of avocado, or a small handful of coconut flesh. Fats are still calorie dense, so be careful, you want the benefit of the Vitamin absorption, without putting on unnecessary pounds.*
Fiber + Fluid + Movement
During pregnancy the priority of many of your bodily functions shift, to the number one focus of growing a baby. The digestive system is no exception. Remarkably the digestive track becomes more efficient at absorbing nutrients, but to do this the actual “transit time” slows down significantly. In addition, you have a surge of hormones that relax your abdominal cavity to make room for your growing uterus. With your digestive track more relaxed and having a slower transit time, constipation, or at least your bowel frequency is a major complaint during pregnancy. So, to feel our best, we need all the help we can get from our diet and lifestyle.
Dietary fiber, what is often referred to as “bulk” or “roughage” are nutrients found only in plants that are not digested by gastrointestinal enzymes but fill a very important role in our health. The two main types are soluble (dissolves in water) and insoluble (does not dissolve in water) fiber.
Soluble fiber is what I like to think of as “soft” fiber. The kind that gels in your digestive system that breaks down or absorbs the waste products that don’t belong in your stomach, intestines, and colon. It binds to fatty acids which help remove bad cholesterol (LDL) from your body. It slows down the digestive rate of sugar, which is helpful for people with diabetes and aiding in gradual blood sugar absorption. And it expands, which helps create a feeling of fullness, or satiation, which is great for providing us the nutrients we need without unnecessary extra calories. Some great sources of soluble fiber include legumes (black beans, kidney beans, lima beans, lentils and pinto beans), fruits (apples, avocados, pears, figs, nectarines, apricots), seeds (chia, sunflower, hazelnuts, flax seeds, whole grains (barley, oats, wheat), and vegetables (brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, turnips, broccoli, carrots).
Insoluble fiber is more like a brush or a broom moving through your “pipes”. This roughage helps physically move or sweep the bulk out of your digestive track which helps keep regular bowel movements. Once your body has absorbed the nutrients from your food, the remaining waste needs to be eliminated, seems simple. The longer these byproducts sit in your colon and stagnate the more harm it can do to your health. We don’t want toxins having nowhere to go so they get reabsorbed into our bloodstream. And we don’t want bacteria fermenting and creating uncomfortable gas and bloating, there is already enough growing going on in our abdominal cavity, we don’t need any extra pressure! Some great sources of soluble fiber include whole grains (whole wheat, barley, steel cut & rolled oats, corn, brown and black rice, buckwheat), brans (oat bran, rice bran, wheat bran), beans & legumes, vegetables (celery, dark leafy greens, stems), fruit skins, nuts, and seeds.
A point to remember: Fiber is NON-EXISTENT in animal-based foods, so minimizing animal products and boosting your portion of plant foods will greatly help your pregnancy constipation woes.
I think we can all understand the vital importance of water in our diet because it’s what we are made of, and we would die without it. But during pregnancy it is even more important to be on top of your hydration, for the baby’s health and your own.
Pregnancy is a very fluid process, you are building a human whose survival depends on an aqueous environment. Your baby lives in rich amniotic fluid, which constantly needs to be replenished; and is sustained by the nutrients in your blood (through your placenta), which has doubled in volume! You need A LOT of water to keeps baby’s house comfortable and food a-flowing. And while your baby is comfortable and growing you also need ample amounts of water to help you stay comfortable and feeling your best. As I mentioned earlier having smooth and steady bowels are of great importance during pregnancy. Being constipated is not only annoying, but extremely uncomfortable when you already have a baby taking up room in your belly. Drinking plenty of water is essential in keeping your bowels moving (avoiding constipation), and soft (avoiding hemorrhoids). Water also helps flush out your kidneys, diluting your urine which is great for lessening the chance of UTI’s, which are very common during pregnancy. Another benefit of great hydration is that it can help ward of swelling and headaches. Water flushes out excess sodium, and helps you stay alert. Your body is doing a lot of extra work during pregnancy and fatigue is normal, but additional fatigue from dehydration does not have to be part of your day.
Believe me, I understand. You are nauseous, you are exhausted, you are heavier, you are uncomfortable, all you want to do is lay down. And I am all for the impromptu day nap. But somewhere between when you wake up, your morning nap, your afternoon nap, and when you go to bed, please try to move. Pregnancy tends to leave your body feeling tight and stagnant and there is no better feeling than relieving that stagnation. Simple movements like walking, stretching, or doing simple body weight exercises are a great way to keep your body open and strong for a growing baby. It also helps keep your body refreshed and replenished. Movement helps pump your blood to where it needs to go, it helps your digestive system move waste, and it releases endorphins which help reduce your perception of pain and can trigger positive feelings, all of which are great for you and baby.
Snacks + Mini Meals
Since becoming pregnant my appetite took an extreme dip (first trimester) when I could stare at a bowl of lentil soup for hours and eventually barely get it down. Now in my second trimester it spiked back up to my old ravenous self. The major difference between my normal appetite and my pregnancy appetite is that I need to eat smaller more frequent meals. I just feel better eating mini meals, rather than 3 feasts a day. It helps keep me satiated without feeling like I must sit down to digest a monster meal. To make sure that I’m getting enough calories plus all those wonderful “pregnancy nutrients” mentioned above, I have started to compile my favorite mini meals. Each of these snacks and mini meals has been a staple for me recently and are in great combination to optimize the absorption of nutrients.
The following are just some ideas of healthy, nutritious, plant based mini meals that you can eat while growing a baby (or not). There are endless combinations of plant-based meals out there, these are just the ones that have worked for my pregnancy so far.
Eating whole plant foods has helped me feel my best during my first pregnancy. Thus far all of my blood work has come back normal, and I am not deficient in any nutrients. I have enough energy to continue with my workouts, although they have become a lot gentler (less kickboxing and more swimming and walking). And although I get the occasional “I need to eat something RIGHT NOW or I’m going to hurt someone” feeling I have not had any strong cravings for junky food. I believe that this lifestyle has helped keep my hormones as balanced as they can be, with the occasional crying outburst…watching the end of Princess Diaries 2. All in all, I feel strong, healthy, in control, and happy. I like thinking about my baby tasting all the sweet fruits and bitter veggies now, so later s/he will love those foods. If you are pregnant or know someone who is pregnant I hope you can share this information with them to make them feel empowered about adding more plants to their plate, with the confidence that they are getting all the nutrients they need for a healthy pregnancy.
*Disclaimer: I am not an OBGYN, Midwife, or Registered Dietitian, I am a chef with a certificate in plant-based nutrition and a passion for nutrition research. All the information in this post is from my own personal research and knowledge on eating a whole food plant-based diet for the last four years. I have worked side by side with my midwife to ensure that all my nutritional needs are being met (through testing and blood work) throughout each stage of my pregnancy. Please consult your midwife or OB about your individual nutritional and caloric needs along with your possible individual supplement requirements.
- Fat Absorption and Lipid Metabolism Research
- Bioavalibility of Micro-nutrients from Plant Sources Research