This article was written by plant based fertility dietitian Georgia D’Andrea from Plant Nutrition and Wellness.
Following a plant-based diet has been getting increasingly more popular, whether that be anywhere from 100% vegan or vegetarian, to more of a flexitarian approach focusing on eating mostly plant-based foods with some animal products occasionally.
But is a plant-based diet is nutritionally adequate, especially during more crucial stages of life such as pregnancy ? This can often leave pregnant mothers feeling overwhelmed and unsure of their choices to remain plant-based.
Can you have a safe and healthy pregnancy whilst following a plant-based diet?
In short, yes! In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics even state:
“…appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation…”
It is important that emphasis is placed on “appropriately planned” as there are key nutrients crucial for a safe and healthy pregnancy which are harder to get from plants alone. Not getting enough of these nutrients could put your unborn baby at risk of impaired growth and development so it is essential that you pay a bit more attention to them.
However, with some careful planning and the guidance of a plant-based pregnancy dietitian, it is more than possible to meet all your nutritional needs to ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby.
Nutrients for a plant-based pregnancy
There are a number of key nutrients which become more important during pregnancy such as folate, iodine, vitamin D and selenium. However, this article will just focus on the top 5 nutrients specific to a plant-based pregnancy which I see women struggle with the most in practice.
Getting enough protein becomes even more important once you fall pregnant. Protein plays a critical role in supporting the growth and development of your baby as it is the main building block for all their tissues, organs and hormones. It also plays an important role in the development of your uterine tissue to support a healthy pregnancy.
Requirements: Protein requirements vary person to person depending on your weight. To calculate your requirements, use the following formula:
1.1 x your weight in kg = grams of protein you need per day
(e.g. if you weight 65kg then: 1.1×65 = 71.5g protein per day)
Luckily, there are a wide range of protein-rich plant foods to choose from to help you meet your needs. These include tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein (TVP), beans and legumes and mock meat products such as seitan. Nuts and seeds, nutritional yeast and protein rich wholegrains such as quinoa can also help to boost your protein intake. Protein powder can also be a helpful addition if you are struggling to meet your protein requirements however, not all are safe during pregnancy and it is best to check with your dietitian or GP first.
NOTE: although often used as meat alternatives, mushrooms and jackfruit are not good sources of protein!
- 50g TVP = 27g
- 1 cup cooked edamame = 25g
- 150g firm tofu = 22g
- 2 slices high protein bread = 21.5g
- 100g pulse pasta (uncooked) = 21g
- Pregnancy safe protein powder = 20-30g
- 100g tempeh = 15g
- 1 cup beans and legumes = 10-15g
- 1 cup quinoa = 13g
- 2tbsp hemp seeds = 10g
- 1 cup soy milk = 8g
- 2tbsp nutritional yeast = 3.5g
- 30g nuts or seeds = 2-5g
Omega 3s play a critical role in promoting healthy foetal development, especially their brain and eye development and function. Adequate intake has also been linked to promoting a normal length of gestation which helps ensure full development before birth. Plus, the benefits of omega 3s during pregnancy extend past just ensuring a healthy baby. As an added bonus, a high omega 3 intake during pregnancy has even been linked to preventing perinatal depression in mothers.
Requirements: 200mg DHA
There are 3 types of omega 3s in the diet, EPA, DHA and ALA. EPA and DHA are found most abundantly in oily fish whereas plant-based foods contain omega 3 in the ALA form. It is important we make this distinction as the body primarily uses omega 3s in the DHA form to perform the above roles.
Our body does have the ability to convert ALA to DHA, however, unfortunately, the conversion rate can be as low as 1-10%. Because of this, to ensure you are meeting your DHA requirements, an algae-based omega 3 supplement is also recommended alongside a diet rich in plant-based omega 3s (speak to your doctor or dietitian about a suitable option for you). We recommend adding in 2-4tbsp of any of the following omega 3 rich nuts/seeds each day:
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Flax seeds and flaxseed oil
- LSA mix
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In recent years, you may have noticed a bit more of a buzz surrounding choline in the pregnancy space. This is as more and more research has been emerging supporting the important role of choline in foetal brain and nervous system development including the development of the neural tube alongside folate and B12. However, despite its importance, only around 1% of Australian mothers-to-be meet requirements during pregnancy.
Requirements: 440mg per day
Unfortunately, plant-based sources of choline are limited and even our richest vegan choline foods still make it difficult to reach the required 440mg per day. Due to this a choline supplement is also often recommended alongside consuming a choline rich diet.
- 1 cup red kidney beans = 90mg
- 1 cup chickpeas = 70mg
- 1 cup soy milk = 57mg
- 1 cup cooked quinoa = 45mg
- ½ cup cooked broccoli, brussel sprouts or green peas = 30mg
- 150g tofu = 25mg
- ½ cup cooked shiitake mushrooms = 25mg
Iron requirements during pregnancy don’t change during the first trimester. However, the body’s demand for iron increases dramatically during trimester 2 and 3. Iron is vital for the growth and development of your baby. Low iron status during pregnancy increases risk of low birth weight and preterm delivery as well as postpartum haemorrhages. Even though requirements don’t increase until the later stages of pregnancy, we recommend optimising your iron stores pre-conception and during the first trimester to help avoid deficiency later on.
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Requirements: 48mg per day
For most women, iron requirements during pregnancy are only 27mg per day. However, for those on a plant-based diet, requirements are 1.8x higher at 48mg per day as the iron contained in plant foods is much less easily absorbed by the body.
This can make meeting iron requirements on a plant-based diet much more challenging, especially during pregnancy when requirements are so high. Because of this, an iron supplement is also often required to help meet needs (it is recommended you speak to your doctor or dietitian before starting any supplements).
Small amounts of iron can be found in many of our plant-based foods including nuts and seeds, legumes, wholegrains, dark leafy greens and fortified products. To help optimise iron absorption it is recommended you pair these foods with foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus, kiwi fruit, tomato or capsicum.
- 1 cup cooked amaranth = 7mg
- 150g tofu = 4.5mg
- 20g Plant-Based Milo = 4.5mg
- 1 cup red kidney beans = 4mg
- 40g Allbran or 2 Weetbix = 3mg
- 100g tempeh = 3mg
- 1 cup chickpeas or lentils = 3mg
- 30g hemp or pumpkin seeds = 3mg
- 1 cup cooked oats or quinoa (1/2 cup raw) = 2mg
- 2 slices grain bread = 2mg
- 155g baked beans = 1.5mg
- 30g cashews = 1.5mg
- 1 medium white potato = 1.5mg
- 30g dark chocolate = 1.5mg
- 1 cup raw kale = 1mg
- 1 cup raw spinach = 1mg
Calcium is a critical building block for developing your baby’s bones and teeth. Plus, it also assists in nerve function and the important job of normalising their heartbeat. There is also some evidence linking inadequate calcium intake during pregnancy to an increased risk of developing pre-eclampsia.
Learn about reducing your risk of preeclampsia with food here
Even though calcium requirements do not increase during pregnancy (our bodies have an innate ability to increase calcium uptake from foods during pregnancy), making sure you are getting adequate calcium in the diet becomes especially important. As plant-based diets exclude dairy products which are a major source of calcium in omnivorous diets, inadequate calcium intake is one of the most common mistakes I see in practice.
Requirements: 1000mg per day
There are a number of plant-based sources of calcium to help you meet your needs including soy products, some of our green vegetables and some nuts and seeds. Plant-based dairy alternatives can be a great source of calcium so long as they have been adequately fortified. However, unfortunately fortification is not mandatory so it is always best to check the label.
- 1 cup calcium fortified plant-based milk = 300mg
- 40g ‘Made With Plants’ Cheese = 290mg
- 150g calcium set tofu* = 250mg
- 200mL soy yogurt = 250mg
- 30g chia seeds = 190mg
- 20g Plant Based Milo = 180mg
- 165g Alpro almond yogurt = 175mg
- 100g tempeh = 110mg
- 1 cup edamame = 100mg
- 1 cup raw kale = 100mg
- ½ cup cooked Asian greens = 80mg
- 30g almonds = 80mg
- 150g tinned baked beans = 60mg
- 30g hemp seeds = 50mg
*To check if tofu is calcium set – look for calcium sulphate or agent 516 in the ingredients
How to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients
Although a safe and healthy diet is achievable on a plant-based diet, it is recommended you see a plant-based prenatal dietitian for more individualised advice. This article was written by plant based fertility dietitian Georgia D’Andrea from Plant Nutrition and Wellness.
Want to optimise your nutrition for a health pregnancy? Book your consult with Lana Hirth to give your baby the best start to life and nourish your body during pregnancy. You can also book in with the Plant Nutrition Wellness team.