How to have a healthy Vegan pregnancy

September 8 | Guest post by Sayward Rebhal
V is for Vegetarian! Photo by Renato.
There's so much good stuff to say about veganism and pregnancy that it's hard to know where to start.

Unfortunately most people, most doctors even, have an antiquated view of general nutrition (oh, government-sponsored-food-pyramid, *sigh*), let alone an understanding of veganism! This can lead to all sorts of confusion — from the unsolicited advice of semi-strangers to the genuine, albeit unwarranted, worry of friends and family. The truth is that nutrition should be a top priority for every soon-to-be-mama, whether vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore.

When I became pregnant I never a questioned whether or not to remain vegan. I'm a scientist by training, neurotic by nature, and a fiercely fact-driven person. Self-diagnosed with Hyper Productivity Disorder™, I'd done enough research to rest assured that I was making a safe – and in fact an optimal – decision for myself and my baby.

As vegans, our diets are under additional scrutiny. It can be frustrating, but try to stay strong – and keep smiling. Challenge your detractor to provide even one single case of a well nourished veg*n mother birthing a baby who was unhealthy due to dietary deficiency. Then, gently remind them that the American Dietetic Association's position paper on veganism states that,

". . . appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes."

If the ADA isn't enough to quiet their concerns, then how about the United Nations? The UN certainly isn't the type of institution to give out unsound medical advice. But in 2006, a comprehensive UN report unequivocally advocated a global shift away from animal products.

And finally, just for fun you can always point them towards this adorable and delightful profile of thriving tiny vegans!

My approach to pregnancy paralleled my outlook on life: insistent optimism. Kill them with kindness. You catch more flies with hon . . . er . . . with agave than with vinegar. I countered contrarians with a short smart response and my biggest grin.

"Oh no worries, vegan diets are totally safe (at every life stage) . . . Yes, I get plenty of protein – sometimes more than I'd like! . . . No you don't need to eat fish, I take an omega-3 supplement that includes both EPA and DHA . . . Actually, many of the micronutrients important for pregnancy are more easily obtained through plants . . . I get my calcium from greens, just the same as the cows do!"

And so it went.

The best education is in experience and leading by example. So log a little research, know what nutrients you need, make sure your meals are balanced and all your bases are covered. Then, relax and enjoy your vegan pregnancy with confidence! When someone questions where your baby is getting its calcium, just ask them where their baby is getting its boron. Okay okay, don't really do that – no need to be rude.

The point is, don't let anyone guilt or scare you into doubting your vegan choice. Babies are built of more than just vitamins and minerals. Consideration and compassion and thoughtfulness are all key components in producing a little person. And veg mama, those are things that you've got growing, in spades!

For more information on vegan pregnancy and parenting, check out these awesome resources:

  1. Thanks for writing this. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about the vegan diet, and when you throw pregnancy into the mix, watch out! I have a lot of respect for the thought you've put into your choices.

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  2. I'm going to have to steal your response to nay-sayers. As soon as my husband and I mentioned that we were trying to conceive my mother-in-law started a full court press effort to convert me to omnivorism.

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    • Eek! Good luck with your family, I know it can be so frustrating. And yay for trying to conceive! Make more vegans, ha!

  3. Thanks for this great post. As I live in a pretty hippie community, I don't expect to get much flack for being a vegan while pregnant (and my/our families are really understanding and supportive of why we eat the way we do). I loved the resources though-thank you! I've been a vegan for almost 4 years now, and have no intentions of eating animal products while pregnant, nor raising my babies to eat them. They can make their own choice when they're old enough to do so, but until then, what I say, goes.

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    • Thanks, and good luck with your vegan pregnancy! I've known many pregnant vegans and we've all had lovely experiences. =)

  4. Thanks for posting this. I'm vegetarian and newly pregnant, and was completely sure I'd have my family up my butt about it. So far they've actually been quiet, though I'm wondering if they just haven't thought about it yet.

  5. I'm really glad you wrote this post.
    I'm an omnivore, and you and I are on the same wavelength. I figure that so long as they do the research anyone at any age can be vegan or vegetarian.
    I hope anyone interested reads and learns from this post.

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  6. awesome, this has been on my mind for a while. Ive only been a vegan for a few months but Im completely commited to it and Im going to start trying for a baby soon. The idea of a backlash occurred to me,and being new, I really needed some resources to help out. Thanks so much!

    • Hey, welcome to veganism! And good luck with getting pregnant – that's awesome! All those references are good but I especially recommend the book Becoming Vegan. It's got TONS of great general nutrition info, plus a whole chapter on pregnancy and another on raising vegan babes. Totally valuable resource!

  7. I think the hardest part of being pregnant is how everyone knows what is best for you…and not all of them are even doctors. Good for you!

  8. Thank you so much for this! I'm vegan and trying to conceive, so I'm already polishing my diplomatic responses to all those questions I'm sure to get. It's great to have your experiences out there. Yay for plant-based mamas and babies!

    • B12 is very important, but it's not just a veg*n issue. Nearly half of diagnosed B12 deficiencies are in omnivores, because it's a malabsorption issue rather than a dietary affect. Everybody should have their levels checked during pregnancy and supplement as needed. All vegans should already be supplementing or at least eating fortified foods. (in my never-very-humble opinion)

      Good luck with your pregnancy! Don't worry, there are practically entire countries that are vegetarian – your pregnancy should be fine! =D What are you specifically worried about?

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  9. It seems to me that ALL behavior (and feelings and bodies, etc.) of pregnant women are, for some reason, treated as though they are in the public domain. This includes diet. Who on earth (besides a health professional or someone paid to do so) would tell a grown adult stranger what they should and should not eat. The same goes for belly touching and the rest of it. Diet seems to be just one of the many elements of pregnant women's lives that are treated as though they are everybody's business.

    (I'm an omnivore but this bothers me FOR you!)

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    • exactly!!
      I think veggies get enough "judgmental curiosity" sometimes, but mixed with the idea that a pregnant woman's body is public property and everybody has an opinion, regardless of any actual knowledge!
      While I'm on my on the pregnant woman = public property rant, my rather pregnant sister was refused cigarettes in a shop the other day, they weren't for her, but even if they were, wtf is it to do with the shop assistant? Ok, maybe be judgmental and tut at her, but to refuse the sale? It scares me,you know, wanting to maintain my bodily integrety and all that

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  10. Being vegan is def. interesting because somehow our diet is always the thing people want to talk about when they first find out this interesting little fact. Generally people like to tell a story about how they had a friend that had to stop being a veggie/vegan when they started some sort of strenuous thing.I love that story I guess the fact that I am a competitive runner who has ran 4 marathons and has been found to be the healthiest of my gynecologist's patients doesn't count for anything because your friend stopped being vegan/veggie because they missed cheese/fish and needed an excuse. I get frustrated and I LOVE how chill you are Sayward.

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  11. I am such a tremendous carnivore than veganism is difficult to envision/understand for me. Do vegan babies breastfeed? Thanks for the links (esp the cute one with the babies). It gives me an opportunity to learn.

    • You're not a carnivore unless you're a lion or a cat and can chase, capture and kill your prey with your own body (no tools needed) and would die if you didn't eat them. And if you're a carnivore, you would eat ALL of the animal: fur, feathers, skin, blood, marrow, bone, organs, veins, everything. Not just seasoned, grilled muscle (aka steak).

      Humans are not carnivores. We are omnivores–we get our nutritional needs met through plant and animal sources but are not specifically adapted to eat either (although there is a strong case to be made that eating mostly or all plants is best for us). This is why humans can be vegan. And that's why I've been vegan for a few years and haven't died for lack of eating raw meat, like I would if I were a lion.

      Also, just to reiterate Shanna's point, of course vegan babies can breastfeed. Our milk is to feed our young, just like cows' milk is for calves.

      I ate animal products for longer than I've been vegan so I understand when you say you can't entirely wrap your head around it. I once said things like, "I love meat too much. I can't give up cheese." But once I learned the truth about animal agriculture and veganism, my choice became clear. A big part of making that choice was listening to Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's podcast: http://www.compassionatecooks.com. I cannot recommend it enough.

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      • I have to disagree over your definition of "carnivore". A carnivore is an animal that derives its nutrients and calories primarily but not _solely_ from a mix of mammals, avians, and fish (as opposed to animals that primarily eat fish – piscivores – and animals that primarily eat insects – insectivores). This includes predators, as you state, but it also includes scavengers, like hyenas and vultures.

        What you refer to would be an obligate carnivore predator, and cats are the only mammalian example I know of for that.

        Most carnivores are non-obligate (i.e., facultative), like dogs. They get some of their nutrients from non-meat sources. In fact, I know some folks who feed their dogs vegetarian and the dogs are perfectly fine.

        I'm also pretty certain that not all carnivores eat all of the animals they hunt (or scavenge). For example, not all animals can break bones to get to the marrow inside. Some animals can physically handle eating a week-old dead animal, others need the meat to be fresh.

        (I say all this being a pescatarian and a biology minor in 4-year university and having just gone through a course in Animal Biology.)

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  12. vegan babies absolutely breastfeed. Veganism is about (atleast for me) saving animals from the abuse and pain they suffer in order to put milk eggs bacon etc..on the table. It doesn't extend to milk that comes out of a babies Mama. Isn't that why milk exists in the first place, to fee the young of the animal that gave birth to it? 🙂

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  13. I think it is great that you kept with your diet/way of life during pregnancy! You shouldn't feel like you need to change in order to keep you and your growing baby healthy. I do hope everyone who does follow veggie/vegan diets during pregnancy stay educated. Personally, I worry about the amount of soy that some veggie women eat and how that really does affect babies, from the estrogen affecting the uterine environment to research that shows that too much soy can shorten the umbilical cord. Education is a must in all pregnancies and no matter what diet you have! This is something that I think isn't talked about as much as it should be!

  14. there are certainly risks involved when excess amounts of anything are consumed, same thing goes with meat. As for soy whenever this gets brought up I ask my best friend, who is Japanese, what she hears in her homeland about soy consumption and she reminds me that breast cancer (you know that nasty thing that when people are at risk for breast cancer they tell them to lay off soy)isn't as prevalent there as it is here, and their children don't seem to be suffering for their parents consuming a high soy diet. Most studies finding come from soy supplements which contains more phyto estrogen's than could ever be consumed by a huge margin. Anyways I became a vegan because I'm not ok with the abuse and pain animals go through in order to put a steak on my plate etc.. So long as I have the option to not cause suffering through my diet I'll be vegan (9 years vegan 18 years vegetarian yep I went veggie at 10)I consume a well rounded diet consisting of various protein sources inc. soy hemp pro nut butters beans quinoa yum I am also a competitive runner and have been tested by every doctor I have ever had has testes everything to try to prove I wasn't as healthy as I looked results always came back perfect iron stores bone serums perfect etc.

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  15. When my mother found out that I was going to remain vegan during my pregnancy she was so upset. I would try to reassure he with my doctors reports that I was amazingly healthy. It wasn't until my mom came for a visit, ate the meals I cooked and met my little girl that she understood what veganism can do for a person. My mom and sisters are now also vegans.

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  16. Thanks for the advice. I'm not a vegan but since becoming pregnant my priorities have changed. I'm taking the extra time to prepare healthy dishes with fresh fruit and veggies, nuts, pulses and wholegrains. I'm now feeling like I could easily become a vegan. I'm no longer craving meat or dairy. Perhaps it has to do with the quality of the food and the ingredients. I have a few concerns about turning vegan but these are certainly not health related. 

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  17. This is great to think about as someone that's starting to think about entering the planning stage.

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