Eating for Baby: A Basic Guide for Plant-Based Nutrition During Pregnancy
Good nutrition before and during pregnancy is so important, and not only for the development and growth of your baby; it can also make the difference between health and sickness of your child throughout their life.
The relationship between food and pregnancy has, at times, been generalized to suggest that as long as we’re eating enough calories, taking prenatal vitamins, and avoiding high-risk foods (list provided below), we can eat whatever we want! While it may be true that we always have the freedom to choose what we eat, why not incorporate highly nourishing, baby-lovin‘ foods into our diet during this incredibly special time?
For those of us interested in maintaining a plant-based diet during pregnancy, it is possible - despite what we’ve heard from naysayers. As with any nutrient-dense diet, making sensible food choices during pregnancy requires education and planning. We must know what our body needs and, more importantly, what to eat to supply the essential pregnancy nutrients.
Health and nutrition experts calculate that pregnant women need to consume an extra 300-400 calories a day to support the growth of a healthy baby. Ideally, we shouldn’t need to change our diet drastically during pregnancy, because there isn’t anything that we need now that we didn’t need before. Keep in mind, though, that increased amounts of certain nutrients are crucial for preventing birth defects or complications.
Pay special attention to the following 7 nutrients during pregnancy or if you are preparing to become pregnant:
1) FOLATE/FOLIC ACID:
Folate, a member of the class of B vitamins, plays an important role in fetal development and nerve tissue health. Folate is found naturally in many foods, and folic acid is the synthetic/manufactured form of this nutrient. It is well-known to protect against neural tube defects, and for this reason, the CDC recommends folic acid supplements to ensure pregnant women are getting the recommended daily amount of 400 mcg. The RDA can also easily be met with folate-rich plant foods, especially green vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and grains. Consider incorporating the following into your diet to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of naturally-occurring folate:
- Plenty of leafy greens, especially the folate superstars: spinach, romaine lettuce, asparagus, and mustard greens. Try spinach in a green smoothie, which contains approximately 4 cups, or 232 mcg of folate.
- Sprouts, whole grains, nutritional yeast, dates, beans and legumes, mushrooms, oranges, beets, and root vegetables are also rich in folate. Just one cup of cooked quinoa contains 78 mcg.
It’s important to know that there are two primary essential fatty acids that (EFAs) the body needs - omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. EFAs are required for growth and development, as well as the prevention of disease. Our overall health depends on a proper balance of these two EFAs. However, the standard American diet typically contains excessive amounts of omega-6 fat and not enough omega-3 fat. When we don't have sufficient amounts of omega-3 fat, our body cannot produce enough docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is crucial for the growth of human brain tissue. DHA is supplied through the placenta during pregnancy, so it’s incredibly important to get adequate amounts for your developing baby. Studies have even shown improved intelligence scores of children whose mothers took DHA supplements during pregnancy. Conversely, DHA deficiencies in early childhood have been linked to problems such as hyperactivity, allergies, as well as an increased vulnerability for postpartum depression in moms.
Pregnant women need 300 mg of omega-3s a day. Many people have been taught that the only way to obtain sufficient Omega-3s is to eat fish. However, pregnant women are strongly advised to be careful with eating certain types of seafood due to its potentially high levels of mercury and other ocean pollutants. So, many women cut out fish to be safe without replacing it with another source of this vital nutrient. Fortunately, there are plenty of plant sources of omega-3s, such as flax, hemp, and chia seeds, as well as walnuts, algae/seaweed, and avocados. These foods typically manufacture sufficient DHA in the body, but in some cases, even an ideal diet doesn’t supply enough DHA. If you’re concerned that you may be too low, or if you have a history of depression, DHA supplementation may be necessary. It should be noted that most prenatal vitamins do not contain DHA.
3) CALCIUM & MAGNESIUM:
A growing baby cannot develop appropriately without calcium. If there’s not enough calcium for both you and your baby, your body will literally pull calcium from your bones and teeth to get what you need. Not good. Pregnant women need 1,400 mg of calcium per day, which can easily be obtained from plant foods such as leafy green vegetables, sea vegetables, amaranth, quinoa, oats, beans and legumes, almonds, nutritional yeast, sesame seeds/tahini, sunflower seeds, and figs.
In order for the body to better absorb calcium, magnesium is also needed. Some good plant sources of magnesium include sea vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, pumpkin seeds, and hemp seeds.
Iron deficiency anemia is a common problem for many women prior to pregnancy, so it’s no wonder that the RDA for pregnant women is nearly doubled from 15 to 27 mg. This crucial nutrient is required to help build blood cells in both mom and baby. Iron deficiencies during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight and other complications, not to mention excessive fatigue and weakness for an expectant mother. Therefore, it’s important to eat bountiful amounts of iron-containing foods, such as sea vegetables, molasses, whole grains, beans, nuts, beets, nutritional yeast, sesame seeds, prunes, dates, and raisins.
5) VITAMIN D:
Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is one of the most common deficiencies, as many people simply don't get enough sun exposure. If you don’t receive adequate vitamin D while pregnant, your baby’s bones can soften and are at an increased risk of developing rickets. Adequate vitamin D levels have also been linked to less birth complications. Though there are some food sources of vitamin D, these typically don't supply enough. Personally, I take a vitamin D3 supplement and recommend one to most people I know.
Pregnant women need at least 600 IU of Vitamin D a day, though more recent studies are finding that the RDA is too small to give us what our body needs. For pregnant women, the Vitamin D Council recommends 4,000-6,000 IU/day and the Endocrine Society suggests 1,500-2,000 IU/day. Though researchers and doctors can’t seem to come to an agreement of what an adequate amount looks like, the good news is that the toxicity level of vitamin D is very high and even 6,000 IU/day won’t put anyone close to being at risk of overexposure. Many prenatal vitamins contain vitamin D, so an extra supplement may not be necessary to meet the RDA. Depending on your needs, however, a separate D3 supplement may be the way to go.
Protein, the inevitable hot button topic among the plant-based world, becomes an especially important nutrient during pregnancy. Though I’ve discussed protein at length previously, you may get some questionable eye brow raises when you express your desire to maintain your plant-based diet during pregnancy.
Humans, including pregnant women, need less protein than most people think. To get a better understanding of your daily protein needs during pregnancy, multiply 0.36 by your weight in pounds, then add 25 to that. (For instance, a person weighing 150 lbs. needs 54 grams of protein/day + 25 extra grams during the second and third trimesters = 79 grams of protein daily). Or, if you don’t want to get super mathematical, especially when you’re experiencing “pregnancy brain,” the general recommendation is a total of 71 grams per day. If your diet is varied and contains good plant protein sources, and you’re gaining weight during your pregnancy, you don’t need to worry much about getting enough of this nutrient.
Here are some excellent plant-based protein sources to help you better gauge your daily needs:
- Classic Green Smoothie (32 ounces = 12 grams of protein)
- Apple with 2 tablespoons of almond butter (8 grams of protein)
- ½ cup of hummus with 1 cup of baby carrots and 1 cup of red bell pepper (10 grams of protein)
- 1 cup cooked quinoa (8 grams of protein)
- 1 cup tempeh (31 grams of protein)
- 1 cup cooked lentils (18 grams of protein)
- 1 cup chopped walnuts (18 grams of protein)
7) VITAMIN B12:
When eating a plant-based diet, especially if you’re vegetarian (no animal flesh) or vegan (no animal products at all, including eggs and dairy), vitamin B12 can be a difficult nutrient to obtain through food alone, yet it’s important for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis. Vitamin B12 is found in animal products, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and milk products, as well as fortified almond milk, cereals, and nutritional yeast for those who do not consume animal products.
If you’re a pregnant vegetarian or vegan, a B12 supplement may be recommended, since this nutrient is crucial for your baby’s brain development. It is also important to continue supplementing if you’re breastfeeding. The RDA is 2.6 mcg for pregnant women and 2.8 mcg for nursing mothers. Though the RDA is small, B12 deficiency is serious and can cause irreversible nerve damage. Many of us have built-up reserves of B12 in our body, but eating a diet lacking B12 can cause depletion over time.
Should you choose not to consume animal products while pregnant, and you’re also not interested in supplementing, consider the following:
- 1 serving of a fortified breakfast cereal typically contains anywhere from 1.5-6.0 mcg of Vitamin B12. Check the label to verify.
- 1 cup (8 fluid oz.) of fortified (also called “enriched”) unsweetened almond milk typically contains 3 mcg of B12.
- 1 tablespoon of Red Star nutritional yeast (found at most health food stores) supplies the RDA of B12 for pregnant women.
No matter what you’re eating during pregnancy, there is a specific list of foods to completely avoid. Ensure your baby's healthy development by not exposing him or her to the following potentially harmful foods:
- Nicotine, including second-hand smoke
- Most medications, including over-the-counter and prescription drugs
- Seafood high in mercury, including swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish
- Herbs and high dose supplements, especially vitamin A
- Raw, undercooked, or contaminated seafood, including raw sushi, shellfish, mollusks, and refrigerated smoked seafood, such as lox
- Undercooked meat, poultry, and eggs
- Unpasteurized foods, including most soft cheeses like brie and feta
- Deli meats, luncheon meats, and hot dogs
Luckily, many of the foods considered high-risk during pregnancy are not typically part of a plant-based diet. So as long as you’re getting enough of the nutrients outlined above, you know you’re nourishing your growing baby and yourself during this precious time.
More to Come!
Stay tuned for my next blog, which will outline what a nutrient-dense, plant-based day of eating looks like during pregnancy or when you’re planning to become pregnant. You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that a dietary plan for a healthy pregnancy is very similar to a menu for excellent health in general.