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Plant-Based Diets During Pregnancy: A Good Or Bad Choice?


Are you or someone close to you, are considering having a plant-based diet during a pregnancy?


As with anything, there are risks and benefits to following a plant-based diet during pregnancy. It is important to note that there are plethora diets that are considered ‘plant based’. Some of which include vegetarian, flexitarian, vegan, and fruitarian, and each of these categories of diets have sub-categories. Often, people automatically equate veganism and vegetarianism to a healthy lifestyle, but, on the contrary, a person that eats only fries, chips and bread all day can still be considered a vegan. Additionally, a person that eats only raw veggies day in and day out, could still not be consuming all the nutrients needed to maintain the healthiest body. Meaning a healthy plant-based diet, fit for a pregnancy, is not about just eating only healthy foods, but strategically eating the right kinds of healthy foods. So, it is pivotal to remember when participating in the plant-based lifestyle that you are still incorporating all the nutrients and micronutrients needed to foster a healthy a body, especially during pregnancy.


First Thing’s First- What Are The Nutrients And Micronutrients That Are Needed During Pregnancy?

B vitamins, Iron, Calcium, vitamin D, Zinc, Iodine, Omega-3 fatty acid, and choline are all essential in a pregnant person’s diet and here’s why:

B-12, specially, maintains a healthy nervous system, aids in the process of digesting protein in the body, and prevents pre-mature birth.

B-9, also known as folic acid, is responsible for developing the neural tube in the fetus, which ultimately makes the spinal cord. The neural tube is developed in the first month of pregnancy, before people are usually aware they are pregnant, so it is important to incorporate folic acid in the daily eating regimen of every person of child-bearing age.

B-6 Is involved in fetal brain development and helps to foster a healthy nervous system, and immune system, for the pregnant person and the baby.

Iron allows oxygen to be carried throughout the body and promotes new DNA production, along with aiding the fetus’ weight gain.

Calcium is super important for healthy teeth and bone growth for baby, and healthy teeth and bone maintenance for the pregnant person.

Vitamin D helps maintain a healthy gut biome, aids immune function, memory, and muscle growth.

Zinc is pivotal in cell repair, immune system functioning, and within metabolic processes.

Iodine helps maintain healthy thyroid functioning and helps with fetal brain development.

Omega-3s are needed for brain and eye development, and they are needed to reduce dangerous inflammation within the body.

Choline is essential in developing the baby’s spinal cord and brain [4][6][7].



How Can These Vitamins Be Incorporated Into A Plant-Based Diet?

B-12 vitamins are found in tofu, soy milk, and fortified nutritional yeast. It is typically difficult to consume all the B-12 needed for a pregnant body through a plant-based diet, so it is often advised to take a supplement, which should be a discussion with an OBGYN or primary care physician. Folic acid, for B9, can easily be found in dark leafy greens, like collard greens and kale, as well as, in beets, eggs, asparagus, and legumes.


Iron can be found in broccoli, prune juice, raisins, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, collard greens, bean, peas, dried fruit, etc. People that are abstaining from eating meat in their diet, often have a low iron count in their blood, and are encouraged to eat lots of iron-rich foods, which can be supplemented by food that is fortified, meaning food that has been infused with supplements. It is notable that vegetables high in iron, like beans, need to be soaked in water after they are cooked, for the iron to be more accessible within the body. Incorporating vitamin C alongside iron rich foods is also encouraged, to help metabolize the iron. Some examples of fortified foods are dairy products (as a non-vegan plant-based option), some pasteurized orange juices and cereal. Calcium is found in broccoli, chickpeas, kale, dairy products, pasteurized juices, etc.


Vitamin D is not naturally occurring in a lot of foods; therefore, this is a good vitamin to get from fortified foods, as well. Vitamin D can also be obtained from sun exposure, but too much sun exposure can damage your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer, additionally, people with darker skin tones have a harder time absorbing vitamin D from the sun. Thus, it is best to take a vitamin D supplements, as opposed to laying out in the sun, if your blood work shows low vitamin D levels. Zinc can be incorporated in a plant-based diet, by consuming whole grains, tofu, legumes, nuts and seeds. Iodine can be consumed within dairy products, iodized salt and some vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil. Omega-3s can be found in chia seeds, hemps seeds, walnuts, soybeans, fish, etc. Choline can be consumed in eggs. What is awesome about these foods is that a lot of them, like broccoli and collard greens, contain several different essential vitamins! Thus, if you choose to incorporate the veggies, nuts, and fruits that contain multiple vitamins, you can make your grocery shopping list much more cost effective [2][3][4][5][6][7].



Benefits Of Participating In A Healthy Plant-Based Diet During Pregnancy

By dispelling the meat from your food regime, you could potentially rid your body of a lot of excess saturated fat and salt, depending on the type of meat you would typically consume. Well planned plant-based diets during pregnancy, that include a lot of vegetables, have been found to decrease the risk of a cesarian birth, lower risk of gestational diabetes, decrease chance of a DNA deformity in the fetus, potentially lower risk of postpartum depression, and lower the chance of infant and maternal mortality. Additionally, a vegetarian, and especially a vegan, meal plan dispels a lot of foods that typically cause food poisoning, like eggs, undercooked meat, and deli meats, which can be a very dangerous experience during pregnancy. An emphasis on eating a lot of vegetables, which is often true of plant-based diets, has been theorized to decrease the risk of low birth weight. Lastly, organic, ethically sourced meat can be very expensive [1][4][6][7].



Benefits Of Having A Meal Plan That Incorporates Meat And Fish During Pregnancy

If you simply cannot remember to take your supplements or you are not able to stomach them, eating meat and fish both provide several key vitamins, needed especially in pregnancy. Meat contains iodine, iron, zinc, several fatty-acids, and B vitamins. Fish contains Omega-3’s, vitamin D, and some B-2. People with plant-based diets generally have lower levels, or at higher risk of having lower levels, of B12, heme iron, EPA and DHA Omega fatty acids, Iodine, zinc, and calcium than meat eaters.


B12 is largely accessible through animal products, thus people in plant-based diets are often advised to take a B12 supplement. Heme iron, and EPA and DHA Omega fatty acids are only found in animal products and can be supplemented by an increased intake of non-heme iron and ALA Omega fatty acids, which are easily found in a plant-based meal plan. Yet, iron, obtained from vegetables, can be extremely difficult for the body to process. Vegans typically have a harder time consuming enough iodine, because iodine is usually consumed through dairy products, and in vegetables that are grown in specifically iodine rich soil. Lower levels of zinc and calcium are merely because a common lack of attention paid toward zinc and calcium in plant-based diets. There are theories that meat helps process calcium in the body, but they are not confirmed. Additionally, plant-based protein is relatively easy to consume in a plant-based diet. Tofu, legumes, nuts, nut butters all have a good amount of protein, and even spinach contains some protein, but plant-based protein can be harder for the body to process, thus people on a plant-based diet should increase their daily protein consumption by 10% in comparison to a person that incorporates meat in their diet [3][4][5][6][7].



What’s The Verdict?

The biggest conclusion to draw from all this information is that there are major benefits to plant-based eating during pregnancy, if plant-based meals are intentionally and carefully thought out. Pregnancy requires people to increase in a lot of their vitamin intake, and the plant-based lifestyle also requires people to increase their intake of a lot more foods to account for the vitamins and nutrients that they are no longer receiving from meat and fish. So, there is a lot of increase in both lifestyle changes; therefore, it is important to note that plant-based eating, especially during pregnancy, requires strategic meal planning. If you are considering a plant-based diet during pregnancy but are now panicking that you will never be able consume all these healthy foods and all these numerous vitamins in your diet every day, don’t panic! Prenatal vitamins are designed to fill in small nutrient gaps in your diet. Although, it is ideal that you pair your prenatal vitamins with a healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables of every color of the rainbow. No one can be expected to have three perfectly nutritious meals every day for nine months, especially when considering morning sickness, cravings, and food aversions that are very common throughout pregnancies. Whether you do not have time to cook and you end up grabbing a Wendy’s impossible burger on the way home occasionally, or you are just really craving that double fudge ice cream, that is totally understandable. It is important to listen to your body, and have a lot of grace with yourself, especially while making a human.





[1] Coyle, Daisy. (2018). Top 9 Food most likely to cause food poisoning. Healthline.

[2] Kubala, Jillian. (2020). Supplements considered safe during pregnancy. Healthline.

[3] Link, Rachel. (2020). 15 healthy foods that are high in folate (folic acid). Healthline.

[4] Petre, Alina. (2020). Is it safe to follow a vegan diet while pregnant? Healthline.

[5] Petre, Alina. (2019). 7 supplements you need on a vegan diet. Healthline.

[6] Well, Ask. (2021) Can you have a healthy vegetarian or vegan pregnancy, The New York Times.

[7] Wood, Emily. (2019). Can you have a healthy plant-based pregnancy? Center for Nutrition

Studies.



Blog Contributors

Author- Katrina Peavy

Editor- Sophia Galvez

Public Health Scientist- Hira Mughal

@werise4wellness

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