As veganism grows increasingly popular, more women are choosing to eat this way — including during pregnancy (1).
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 (2, 3, 4, 5).
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.
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 (6).
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.
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 (8, 9, 10).
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 (6, 11).
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 (6, 7).
Vegan diets may even help prevent DNA damage and reduce your baby’s risk of certain developmental issues (6).
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 (14).
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.
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.
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.
- Vitamin B12. Vegan diets are naturally devoid of this vitamin. A deficiency may increase your risk of miscarriage, gestational diabetes, preterm birth, and malformations (15, 16, 17, 18).
- Vitamin D. 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 (19, 20, 21, 22, 23).
- Iron. 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 (11, 24).
- Iodine. 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 (6, 25).
- Calcium. Insufficient calcium intake during pregnancy may increase the mother’s risk of preeclampsia, fractures, and bone disease (6, 26, 27).
- Omega-3 fats. 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 (14).
- Protein. 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% (6, 7).
- Zinc. 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 (6, 7, 28, 29).
- Choline. 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 (30, 31).
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.
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.
Well-planned vegan diets should combine nutrient-dense foods with fortified foods and supplements.
Nutrient-rich plant foods
If you follow a vegan diet during pregnancy, be sure to eat sufficient amounts of the following foods:
- Tofu, seitan, and tempeh. Soy products are rich in protein and can replace meat in many recipes. Mock meats are another option but shouldn’t be eaten in excess because they’re rich in fat and salt.
- Legumes. Beans, peas, and lentils are good sources of fiber and plant-based protein. Sprouting, fermenting, and thorough cooking can make it easier for your body to absorb their nutrients (32).
- Nuts and seeds. Most are good sources of iron and zinc. Eat one to two Brazil nuts each day to meet your selenium requirements, and munch on walnuts and hemp, chia, or flax seeds to get alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 (33).
- Calcium-fortified yogurts and plant milks. These foods make it easier for you to get enough calcium. Opt for unsweetened versions whenever possible.
- Nutritional yeast. This protein-rich topping is often fortified with vitamin B12 and adds a cheesy flavor to your dishes.
- Whole grains, cereals, and pseudocereals. In addition to being rich in fiber and B vitamins, these foods provide some iron and zinc. Certain grains, such as teff, amaranth, spelt, and quinoa, are especially rich in protein (34, 35, 36, 37).
- Fermented or sprouted plant foods. Items like Ezekiel bread, miso, tempeh, natto, pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha provide probiotics and vitamin K2. Your body can absorb these nutrients easily (32, 38).
- Fruits and vegetables. Purple, red, and orange fruits and vegetables, as well as leafy greens, tend to be richest in nutrients and beneficial plant compounds (39, 40, 41).
Tips to increase your diet’s nutrient content
A few other small steps can help make a vegan diet robust and nutrient rich.
Eating fortified foods is an easy way to boost the nutrient content of your diet. For instance, you should keep an eye out for plant milks and yogurts fortified with calcium.
In addition, eating 1 Brazil nut each day can help you meet your selenium needs. To meet your daily ALA needs, incorporate 2 tablespoons (20 grams) of chia or flax seeds, 1/4 cup (40 grams) of hemp seeds, or 1/3 cup (35 grams) of walnuts into your meals (42, 43).
The vegan foods above can help you meet your nutrient needs during pregnancy. Eating fortified, sprouted, and fermented foods, as well as using cast iron cookware, may further boost your diet’s nutrient content.
If you’re following a vegan diet while pregnant, you’ll want to avoid a few foods beyond meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. These include:
- Alcohol. Although occasional light drinking may be safe during pregnancy, more research is needed. To be on the safe side, you should consider abstaining from all alcohol during pregnancy (45).
- Caffeine. Experts recommend that you limit your caffeine intake to 200–300 mg per day during pregnancy — equivalent to 1–2 cups (240–480 mL) of coffee (46).
- Overly processed foods. Mock meats, vegan cheeses, and plant-based pastries and desserts often pack sugar or other additives and lack nutrients. As such, you should eat them sparingly.
- Raw sprouts, unwashed produce, and unpasteurized juice. These items are at high risk of bacterial contamination, which may raise your risk of food poisoning and harm your baby (47, 48).
In addition, it’s best to avoid unnecessarily restrictive versions of the vegan diet, such as fruitarian or raw vegan diets. These eating patterns may severely impair your nutrient intake.
If you’re pregnant, consider avoiding unnecessarily restrictive versions of the vegan diet, refraining from alcohol and certain raw foods, and limiting your intake of caffeine and processed foods.
Some nutrients are difficult or even impossible to obtain from whole plant foods alone.
As such, many health professionals recommend relying on the following supplements for a vegan diet during pregnancy:
- Vitamin B12. While it may be possible to get enough vitamin B12 from fortified foods, a supplement is the most reliable way to ensure adequate intake (49).
- Vitamin D. This vitamin may be especially beneficial for women who get less sun exposure. Vegan options include vitamin D2 or lichen-derived vitamin D3 (50, 51).
- Omega-3 fats. Algae oil is rich in EPA and DHA, making it a good vegan alternative to eating fish or taking fish oil (43).
- Iodine. Iodine-poor soils can make it difficult to get enough of this nutrient through plant foods. As iodized salt and some seaweed may result in excess iodine or sodium intakes, a supplement is likely your best option (52).
- Choline. Some plant foods boast small amounts of choline, but a supplement is your best bet to cover your requirements during pregnancy (49).
- Folate. Vegan diets are usually rich in this nutrient. Yet, since folate plays a crucial role in preventing birth defects, all women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant are encouraged to take folic acid (49).
You may also want to consider iron, zinc, and calcium supplements.
Although prenatal vitamins are helpful, many of them lack adequate amounts of choline, omega-3s, and vitamin B12 (53).
That said, excess intake of some of these nutrients blocks the absorption of other nutrients. Thus, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider before adding any supplements to your diet (54, 55, 56).
If you follow a vegan diet while pregnant, you should consider taking choline, algae oil, iodine, and vitamins B12 and D, among other supplements.
This meal plan covers a week’s worth of vegan dishes that pack numerous nutrients intended to aid your pregnancy.
- Breakfast: chia pudding made with soy milk and topped with your choice of fruit, nuts, and seeds
- Lunch: quinoa, roasted peppers, black beans, diced avocados, and sunflower seeds on a bed of greens, topped with lemon-basil vinaigrette
- Dinner: whole grain penne pasta with a tofu- or seitan-based tomato sauce on a bed of arugula
- Breakfast: spinach-mango-oat smoothie
- Lunch: whole grain pita chips with salsa, black bean dip, guacamole, and roasted kale chips
- Dinner: stir-fry with tempeh, rice noodles, bok choy, baby corn, peppers, and vegan teriyaki sauce
- Breakfast: breakfast burrito made with scrambled tofu, roasted mushrooms, and pesto in a whole wheat tortilla, plus a soy cappuccino
- Lunch: veggie sushi rolls, vegan miso soup, wakame salad, and edamame
- Dinner: red lentil dahl with spinach, carrots, and broccoli served over wild rice
- Breakfast: overnight oats topped with nuts, seeds, and fruit
- Lunch: tofu mushroom quiche with a side of sautéed beet greens
- Dinner: baked sweet potatoes topped with white beans, tomato sauce, corn, avocado, and sautéed collard greens
- Breakfast: plant yogurt topped with homemade granola, fresh fruit, nut butter, coconut flakes, and flax seeds
- Lunch: tofu and udon noodle soup with your choice of vegetables
- Dinner: black bean and kale chili served on a bed of cooked amaranth
- Breakfast: pancakes topped with peanut butter, plant yogurt, fruit, and a touch of maple syrup
- Lunch: Spanish-style tortilla de patatas made with chickpea flour, English potatoes, onions, and black beans served on a bed of greens and diced peppers
- Dinner: fully loaded veggie burger with a side of red cabbage and carrot coleslaw
- Breakfast: homemade vegan blueberry-rosemary scones served with nut butter, plant yogurt, fresh fruit, and a glass of fortified orange juice
- Lunch: white bean pumpkin soup topped with pumpkin seeds, shredded red cabbage, puffed quinoa, and a drizzle of coconut milk
- Dinner: vegan lasagna with seitan, eggplant, zucchini, cashew basil spread, plus a radish side salad
Healthy vegan snacks
- roasted chickpeas
- plant yogurt topped with fruit and homemade granola
- popcorn topped with nutritional yeast
- hummus with vegetables
- fresh fruit with nut butter
- trail mix
- homemade energy balls
- chia pudding
- homemade muffins
- granola with plant milk
- plant milk latté or cappuccino with a piece of fruit
The meal and snack ideas above are a few examples of nutrient-rich foods you can enjoy throughout your pregnancy.
Balanced vegan diets can be nutritionally adequate for all stages of life, including pregnancy.
In fact, vegan diets may protect against complications like postpartum depression, C-section delivery, and maternal or infant death.
Yet, poorly planned vegan diets may increase your risk of nutrient deficiencies, as well as preterm birth, low birth weight, and the improper development of your baby.
Therefore, following a vegan diet while pregnant requires careful planning. To make sure you meet your nutrient needs, consider consulting a dietitian who specializes in plant-based diets.