Have Confidence in Your Wholesome Vegan Pregnancy
I have been through two successful pregnancies, one as an omnivore and one as a vegan. I use the term successful to describe the final outcome: a healthy baby. But as many women can tell you, there is more to a pregnancy than the birth and celebration of a healthy infant. There are nine long months of physical transformation preceding the birth of your child. Those months can be ones to remember with fondness or an experience better forgotten.
During my first pregnancy, I was a devout meat-eater. I gained over 50 pounds, and I suffered many discomforts from extreme water retention to constipation and gas pains. I exercised regularly, yet the pounds piled on. My delivery was long and difficult. Certainly, there are factors involved other than what I ate, but I can say with confidence that my diet and weight played a large role. I was consuming frightening amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol and eating far too many calories and not enough fiber. I am thankful that my 7-pound, 6-ounce baby girl was healthy despite all this. In contrast, I was a vegan throughout my second pregnancy, gained a total of 33 pounds, experienced no uncomfortable water retention, constipation, or gas. I ate fresh fruits, greens, whole grains, nuts, veggie burgers, and occasionally treated myself to soy ice cream. I led a busy life with my three-year-old right up until I gave birth at home in about four hours to another healthy 7-pound, 6-ounce baby girl. Only this time I had far less weight to lose after giving birth, and I was “back to new” in two to three weeks.
I was lucky in that I had a wonderful midwife who was knowledgeable in and supportive of vegan diets. You may not be so lucky as to have a midwife or obstetrician who is open to veganism. You may even undergo a less-than-friendly cross-examination and be forced to defend your diet and lifestyle choice. If that is the case, you can go armed with the following knowledge:
- It is likely that as a vegan woman you consume lower levels of dangerous pesticides, which accumulate in the fat of animals and are passed to consumers through meat and dairy products.
- Your protein needs actually increase by only about 16-20% during pregnancy and can be easily met on a vegan diet of fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Most American women consume more than the recommended 60 grams per day even when not pregnant.
- You do need omega-3 fatty acids but not from fish. The FDA, in revealing findings on mercury-contaminated fish, claimed that if women had a list of all the highly-contaminated fish, they probably wouldn’t eat it at all. Instead, you can get your omega-3 fatty acids from ground flax seeds (added to baked goods or smoothies), flax seed oil, walnuts, walnut oil, canola oil, soy products, soybean oil, hempseed oil, and wheat germ.
- Milk is neither the only source of calcium, nor the best, as it contains saturated fat, cholesterol, and possibly, hormone and antibiotic residues from the cows that provide it (under duress and in sad conditions). It has been reported that vegans may need to consume less calcium than omnivores due to lower levels of calcium depletion, which can be caused by a high intake of animal protein. Also, a woman’s body absorbs and retains calcium more efficiently during pregnancy. Good sources of non-dairy calcium include broccoli, almonds, tahini (sesame seed paste used in sauces and dips), sesame seeds, kale, sea vegetables, fortified orange juice, calcium-processed tofu, fortified soy and rice milk.
- Related to calcium-and just as important-is Vitamin D. It is essential in the diet to promote absorption of the calcium you consume and for the formation of your baby’s bones and teeth in utero. Your body will make all the Vitamin D that you need with adequate sun exposure (20 to 30 minutes of direct sunlight on the hands and face, three to four times per week), but since your needs during pregnancy double, it’s safer to make sure you have a dietary source of this nutrient. A good vegan source is fortified soy or rice milk.
- Vegans can easily get enough B-12 by consuming fortified foods such as nutritional yeast (delicious sprinkled on popcorn), soymilk, meat analogs (vegetarian meat substitutes), or breakfast cereals. There is some evidence that suggests that a mother’s stores of B-12 may not be available to the fetus, so it is critical that you include a regular, reliable source of this nutrient in your diet. Sea vegetables and tempeh are not reliable sources.
- Vegan women are no more likely to experience anemia than omnivorous women during pregnancy. However, all women need about 30% more iron during this time, and you should take care to include iron-rich foods in your diet, like green leafy vegetables, beans and legumes, dried fruits, blackstrap molasses, bran flakes, sea vegetables, nuts and seeds. Cooking food in cast iron skillets can increase the iron content of foods, and consuming Vitamin C-rich foods along with iron-rich foods can improve iron absorption.
- Folic acid deficiency is the most frequently encountered vitamin deficiency in the U.S., but vegetarian women consume more folic acid on average than meat-eaters. Experts recommend 600 ug per day during pregnancy, so be sure to meet your needs from the following dietary sources and/or folate supplements: dark leafy greens, whole grains, orange juice, baked goods made with enriched flour, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and fortified cereals.
The experience of giving birth will change you forever, and you owe it to yourself and your baby to treat your body with the utmost respect and care during this time. Make it an experience to remember by feeding yourself from the abundance of a vegan diet and growing a strong, healthy child in confidence. You’ll look back on this time with pride and the satisfaction of knowing that you gave your newborn the gift of a wholesome, cruelty-free entrance into the world.