As we all know, maintaining a healthy balance of nutrients with a vegan diet is perfectly practicable with a little planning, and this is no different in pregnancy. In fact, last year, the British Dietetic Association confirmed that a vegan diet can be healthy for people of all ages, including during pregnancy. Pregnancy puts any woman at risk of certain deficiencies, and supplements need to be taken, whether you are vegan or not. I’ll cover these nutrients as well as those which vegan mums may need to consider more than omnivore mums.
Most of us will know that if we are planning a pregnancy, we need to take preconception vitamins which contain folic acid. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, a vitamin which works with vitamin B12 in the formation of healthy blood cells. The reason why folate is important in pregnancy is that deficiency can cause problems with the development of the nervous system, resulting in a condition called Spina Bifida. This has varying degrees of severity but at its worst, can cause quite severe physical disability. I could list all of the foods that contain high quantities of folate, but current recommendations advise that every woman, vegan or not, should take a supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid before conception and up to the end of the first trimester.
Vitamin D is used primarily in the formation of healthy bone, along with calcium. It is found in some foods, such as mushrooms and fortified plant milks and tofu, however most of it is created in the skin when exposed to sunlight. As we can’t rely on the UK for sun exposure, it is now recommended that everybody over the age of 4 years old should take a supplement of 10 micrograms per day, including pregnant and breastfeeding women. Some people will choose not to take a supplement, but as you will be growing a baby with little bones in there, I would recommend supplementing your vitamin D level before conception and during pregnancy, as per current guidelines.
Many pregnant women end up needing to take an iron supplement. Because of iron’s role in making healthy blood cells, it is utilised more rapidly in pregnant women who are also making blood cells for their baby and because a pregnant woman’s blood becomes more dilute. The likelihood for becoming anaemic in pregnancy are higher if your iron levels aren’t good before conception, so it is important to keep your levels up before getting pregnant. For more information on anaemia and iron rich foods, you can check out my blog about this, but iron is one of the nutrients which your doctor or midwife will keep an eye on during pregnancy, checking your levels several times. If you are iron deficient, your midwife will ask your doctor to prescribe an iron supplement. The doses of prescribed iron are much higher than those which you can buy yourself, but unfortunately I am not aware of any prescribed iron which is suitable for vegans. If you do become particularly anaemic, or really struggle to keep your iron levels up, you may have to take the prescribed iron until you can get back on a bought supplement after you’ve given birth (you may need to continue if breastfeeding). As I previously said, the best way to avoid iron deficiency is to maintain high levels before conception with an iron rich diet, or a supplement, and there are plenty of vegan supplements on the market.
Whilst calcium supplementation isn’t traditionally recommended for pregnancy, vegans are at higher risk of reduced calcium intake and its complications. For this reason, many vegans take a calcium supplement anyway, and if you’re trying for a baby, I would consider a supplement if you can’t be certain that you’re getting the recommended daily amount. The recommended daily intake is around 800mg, however women who are pregnant or breast feeding need 50% more than that. You can read more about good sources of calcium in my blog, and if you want to boost your intake for conception or pregnancy, there are supplements on the market which are suitable for vegans.
Again, iodine supplementation isn’t usually recommended in pregnancy, but is another nutrient that vegans can quite easily become deficient in. I am planning to write a blog about iodine and why it is important, but in short, it is used by the body in production of thyroid hormones, so deficiency can result in an underactive thyroid and goitre. In pregnancy, iodine deficiency can cause cretinism, a potentially serious condition in which babies can be born with brain damage. Vegans can find it difficult to get an adequate intake of iodine as it is usually found in seafood and milk, however it can be obtained from sea vegetables such as kelp, but the content is very variable and unpredictable. For this reason, it is much more advisable to take a supplement which provides your recommended daily amount of 250 micrograms per day, particularly during pregnancy, to ensure healthy development of your baby’s thyroid gland.
I think we are all aware that our risk, as vegans, of B12 deficiency is much higher than the average population. Some of us will obtain our B12 from fortified foods, others will take a supplement. Low B12 levels can cause temporary infertility, so if you are trying to conceive, I would consider a B12 supplement, unless you are sure that you are getting your 1-2 micrograms per day (see my B12 blog for more information). Vitamin B12 is equally important during pregnancy, as it is essential for development of your baby’s nervous system, and deficiency can cause spina bifida (as in folate defiency), as well as anencephaly, where the baby’s head and brain aren’t properly formed. As B12 is only obtained from fortified foods, I would consider taking a supplement before and during pregnancy.
Omega-3 and omega-6 are ‘essential’ fats, which means that they must be obtained in the diet as the human body is unable to make them. Omega-6 is easy to obtain in a balanced vegan diet as it is found in nuts, seeds and soya spreads. However, omega-3 may be harder to obtain as a vegan, as a higher intake of omega-6 can reduce the amount of omega-3 in your blood, despite a good intake from sources such as chia and hemp seeds and walnuts. This means that it may be worth supplementing your omega-3 intake, especially during pregnancy, as it is vital for the development of your baby’s brain and nervous system. Vegan supplements are made from microalgae, and are readily available to buy.
This list is not exhaustive, and a healthy balanced diet is vital for a healthy pregnancy. If you have concerns about particular deficiencies or your fertility or pregnancy in general, have a chat with your GP who can advise or point you in the right direction.
There are several vegan pregnancy supplements on the market, which contain some of these nutrients, but you may have combine a general vegan supplement with an extra dose of pregnancy-specific vitamins, or take several supplements to ensure you’re getting everything you need.
Thanks for reading,
The Vegan Doctor