If you choose to follow a vegan diet it is important that you ensure that you are replacing any nutrients found in meat with plant-based alternatives.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding it is even more crucial that you are getting all the nutrients you need, and in the right amounts, as otherwise your own body will suffer and with it your energy levels, your brain power and your long-term health.
Which nutrients are key during pregnancy and breastfeeding and what foods can provide these when following a vegan diet?
Calcium: in order to develop their own skeleton your baby will use the calcium from your own bones to ensure they get enough. To protect your bone density (the strength of your bones) in the long term it is important you consume enough calcium. During pregnancy your requirements are 700mg per day and this increases to 1250mg whilst you are breastfeeding.
Vegan sources include: dried figs, almonds, chia seeds, fortified plant milks, fortified plant-based yoghurts e.g. soya, almond and coconut, green leafy vegetables, oranges, bread, calcium fortified cereals, calcium enriched orange juice and calcium set tofu.
As a general rule, including at least 3 serves of calcium fortified foods in your diet per day will help meet your requirements during pregnancy, as vegan sources that aren’t fortified contain much lower amounts. However, during breastfeeding I would recommend a supplement of 700mg calcium per day to ensure you are meeting the increased requirements.
Iron: ensuring you consume enough iron before you fall pregnant and in the first trimester can prevent complications with you and the baby especially at birth. Iron is vital for red blood cell production and the transport of oxygen.
It is common for women to become anaemic during pregnancy due to changes in blood volume and the demands put on them by the pregnancy. Your baby will also be stocking up on iron for the first 6 months of its life, so you need a good store yourself. During pregnancy you need 14.8mg per day.
Vegan sources of iron include: beans and pulses especially baked beans, chickpeas and black eye peas, broad beans, raisins, dried apricots, blackcurrants, fortified breakfast cereals, bread and tofu.
Iodine: Iodine plays an important role in metabolism. Not consuming enough iodine in pregnancy is associated with the baby having learning difficulties and is the biggest cause of mental retardation worldwide. During pregnancy you need to have 140 micrograms of iodine per day.
The main source of iodine in the UK is dairy products. As a vegan you should look to consume plant milks fortified with iodine and if this does not meet your requirements I would recommend a supplement. Do not take kelp supplements as the quantity of iodine in these is unreliable and too much iodine can also cause issues. Intakes should not exceed 940 micrograms a day.
Choline: this is another nutrient essential in the diet and used for metabolism, a healthy nervous system and cell membranes. Two papers were published in August 2019 highlighting the importance of adequate choline intakes during pregnancy (Korsmo et al, and Wallace et al).
Further research is required to help establish recommended intakes during pregnancy, but we know that eating adequate amounts is essential and so including sources daily in your diet is recommended.
Vegan sources include: tofu, soya milk, vegan Quorn products, bananas, pinto beans, broccoli, oranges, nuts and seeds and bread.
Omega 3: these fatty acids are essential in our diet and research shows that they are important for brain development especially during the third trimester and breastfeeding. As a mother you also need a good source to protect your heart and it may help prevent post-natal depression.
As a vegan it is recommended to take a supplement containing 300mg DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) daily. Vegan omega 3 supplements are made from algal oil (naturally produced by a microalgae). These can be expensive, so failing this, eating other sources daily is important.
Vegan sources include: linseed, hemp seed, chia seeds, and walnuts. Using rapeseed oil to cook with can also help the body have enough omega 3 as it provides ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) which can be used to make small amounts of DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
Zinc: zinc plays a role in enzyme and insulin production as well as helping to form the baby’s organs, skeleton, nerves and circulatory system. The current recommendation for pregnant women is for 7mg of zinc a day.
You should include sources of zinc on a daily basis including: wholemeal bread, nuts, sesame seeds, plain popcorn, tofu and wholegrain cereals.
Riboflavin (B2): riboflavin helps to release energy from food and is important for eye and heart health. During pregnancy your riboflavin requirements increase and as non-animal sources are lower in riboflavin it is important to include sources of riboflavin daily.
Folate (B9): folate is important before pregnancy and in the first trimester of pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects. Folate supplements are found in the form of Folic acid and women are recommended to take 400 micrograms a day when trying to conceive and during the first trimester of pregnancy.
It is also advisable to include food sources of folate in your diet. Fruits, vegetables and wholegrain cereals are good sources of folate, so easily obtainable for vegans.
Vitamin D: our skin makes vitamin D when it is exposed to UVA from the sun. We then store it in our livers for winter months when there is a lack of sunlight. Vitamin D is vital for for bone development and plays an important role in cell growth and the immune system.
As there are few food sources of vitamin D it is recommended that all pregnant and breastfeeding women take 10 micrograms of vitamin D3 per day. Most supplements aren’t vegan because they contain vitamin D from animal sources, but vegan supplements are available made from lichen. Other vegan supplements containing vitamin D2 are less effective, so make sure you choose one that states it is D3.
My top plant foods to include during pregnancy and breastfeeding:
Beans especially black eye peas and pinto beans
Nuts and seeds especially chia, linseed, walnuts and sesame
Fortified plant milks – ideally fortified with calcium, iodine and B12
Vegan Quorn products
Wholemeal and granary bread
Dried figs, apricots and raisins
Fortified plant milks
Fortified wholegrain breakfast cereals e.g. Weetabix, All Bran, Cornflakes, Branflakes, Shreddies and Sultana Bran – check supermarket own versions, they are usually fortified in the same way.
Recommended supplements per day (if you don’t take a multi-supplement I would recommend the following as a must):
10 mcg vit D3
140 mcg iodine (check the amount you are getting from fortified plant milks)
10 mcg B12 (unless eating nutritional yeast and other fortified foods daily)
400 mcg folate
Also during breastfeeding: 700 mg calcium (if you don’t consume enough fortified foods)