As veganism grows increasingly popular, more women are choosing to eat this way — including during pregnancy.
Vegan diets exclude all animal products and typically emphasize whole foods like vegetables and legumes. This eating pattern is linked to various health benefits, including a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Yet, some people worry that a vegan diet may cause nutrient deficiencies that could be especially dangerous for pregnant women or their babies.
This article explores the current research to determine the vegan diet’s safety during pregnancy and provides tips for how to do it properly.
A vegan diet during pregnancy can be safe
Historically, vegan diets have been criticized for lacking nutrients and being inappropriate for more sensitive life stages, such as pregnancy.
This is because they tend to be naturally low in nutrients like vitamin B12, omega-3 fats, iron, iodine, calcium, and zinc — all of which are especially important during pregnancy.
A low intake of these nutrients can result in nutrient deficiencies, pregnancy complications, and poor mother and infant health.
For instance, insufficient vitamin B12 levels during pregnancy may raise your risk of miscarriage, low birth weight, preterm birth, or birth defects.
That said, a vegan diet that provides adequate amounts of these nutrients appears to be just as healthy as a conventional diet that includes meat, eggs, and dairy.
For instance, research suggests that women who follow a vegan diet are generally at no greater risk of pregnancy complications than women who don’t.
Vegan women may have a lower risk of postpartum depression, cesarean section (C-section) delivery, and maternal or infant mortality.
As a result, several nutrition societies across the world, including the U.S. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, have issued official statements backing the safety of vegan diets for all stages of life, including pregnancy.
All the same, experts agree that well-planned vegan diets require careful monitoring of nutrient intake, a focus on diverse and nutrient-rich foods, and the use of fortified foods or supplements.
Summary: Balanced vegan diets are considered safe for all periods of life, including pregnancy. However, they require careful planning.
Appropriately planned vegan diets may provide health benefits to both you and your baby.
For example, plant-based diets tend to be rich in fiber but low in sugar and fat. These attributes may safeguard against gestational diabetes — or high blood sugar levels during pregnancy — as well as excess weight gain during pregnancy.
What’s more, the vegan diet’s high veggie and fiber content may guard against preeclampsia — a complication caused by a rise in blood pressure during pregnancy.
Vegan diets may even help prevent DNA damage and reduce your baby’s risk of certain developmental issues.
Nonetheless, more research is needed. It’s important to remember that these benefits only apply to well-planned vegan diets that provide sufficient amounts of all important nutrients.
Thus, women interested in following a vegan diet during pregnancy should consider seeking guidance from a registered dietitian specializing in plant-based diets. Doing so can help ensure you’re getting all the nutrients that you and your baby need.
Summary: Properly planned vegan diets may protect mothers and babies from a variety of pregnancy-related complications, including gestational diabetes and developmental issues. You should consult a dietitian if you wish to follow this diet while pregnant.
While a balanced vegan diet is perfectly acceptable for pregnancy, an improperly planned one carries risks.
Suggested read: The vegetarian diet: A beginner's guide and meal plan
Given that the vegan diet excludes all animal products, it’s low in certain nutrients. Failing to adequately compensate for the following nutrients may harm both your and your baby’s health.
Vegan diets are naturally devoid of this vitamin. A deficiency may increase your risk of miscarriage, gestational diabetes, preterm birth, and malformations.
Many women have low vitamin D levels during pregnancy regardless of their diet. Insufficient levels may increase your risk of preeclampsia, low birth weight, and miscarriage.
Your body doesn’t absorb non-heme iron from plant foods as well as it does the heme iron in animal products. This may increase your risk of iron deficiency and related complications, such as preterm birth and low birth weight.
Vegan diets devoid of iodized salt, seaweed, or iodine supplements may contain too little of this nutrient. Insufficient iodine intakes can result in poor infant growth, as well as compromised thyroid and mental function.
Insufficient calcium intake during pregnancy may increase the mother’s risk of preeclampsia, fractures, and bone disease.
People on vegan diets tend to have low blood levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — two omega-3s important for your baby’s eyes, brain, and nervous system.
Insufficient protein intake may slow your baby’s growth and development. Protein may be plentiful on a vegan diet but more difficult to digest, raising your daily protein requirements by around 10%.
Most women get too little zinc during pregnancy, which may result in low birth weight, prolonged labor, and preterm birth. Plant-based zinc is more difficult to absorb, raising daily requirements by 50% for vegan women.
This nutrient is essential for the development of your baby’s nervous system. Most women get too little during pregnancy — and plant foods contain only small amounts.
Suggested read: 7 important supplements you need on a vegan diet
Getting sufficient amounts of all these nutrients on a vegan diet is possible but requires careful planning. In particular, you may need to take several supplements.
If you want to maintain a vegan diet during pregnancy, consider having a dietitian review your diet and nutrient levels, as they can help you identify and compensate for any suboptimal intakes.
Summary: Vegan diets are naturally low in certain nutrients, so you should plan your food intake carefully, take supplements, and consult a dietitian if you plan to follow this diet while pregnant.