Vegan Diet During Pregnancy, Breastfeeding, and for the Family
Read time: 5 minutes
What is important to consider while following a vegan diet?
Well planned vegan diets can be healthy during all stages of life, including pregnancy and breastfeeding; prenatal and postpartum women; as well as for babies and children.
A balanced vegan diet along with key supplements can provide you and your baby with the nutrients you need
Learn which nutrients to pay attention to and how to incorporate them into your diet
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is one that excludes meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy. Many vegans exclude other animal by-products as well, such as honey.1
What nutrients do vegans need to be mindful of?
It can take some planning to ensure you are getting certain nutrients that tend to be more plentiful in animal products. In particular, vegans should focus on including enough protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 in their diets.1,2
During pregnancy, nutrient deficiencies may also negatively impact the growth and development of your baby.5
If you’re a vegan and breastfeeding, keep in mind that your baby receives their nutrients from your body (and in fact, baby gets first dibs on your nutrient stores).2,6 So now is the time to assess your diet and make sure you’re not missing out on the nutrients both you and your baby need.
When following a vegan diet, variety is key
If you and your baby follow a vegan diet, it’s important to include a wide variety of nutritious plant-based foods that will provide you and your little one with the calories and nutrients you need to stay healthy.
Foods to include throughout the day: Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, healthy fats and oils, fortified cereals, fortified plant-based meat alternatives, and plant-based milk alternatives.
Looking for guidance and support for your and your baby’s vegan diet? Reach out to our team of registered dietitians and lactation consultants for free! They’re here to help on our free to live chat from Monday – Friday 8am – 6pm (ET). Chat Now!
Nutrients to include in your and your child’s vegan diet
Proteinis important for the structure, function, and regulation of all tissues and organs in the body; and critical for growth and development in infants and children.7
While it’s relatively easy to get plenty of protein with a vegan diet, it’s important to understand that many plant-based proteins are ‘incomplete’.8 This means that unlike animal proteins, they are low in one or more of the 9 essential amino acids. These essential amino acids are components of protein that you have to get through your diet because your body cannot make them.
But don’t worry! Plant proteins can complement each other so that the body can make complete proteins. By eating many different plant protein sources you’ll likely get all of the essential amino acids.
Vegan foods that provide protein:
Beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, and seitan
Whole grains such as quinoa, whole wheat, buckwheat, and oatmeal
Did you know that there are some plant foods that contain all essential amino acids? These complete proteins include: Quinoa, buckwheat, soy (edamame, tofu, tempeh), chia seeds, amaranth, spirulina, and hemp seeds.9
Vegan protein in baby’s diet: Be sure to introduce foods to your baby in a texture and size that they can handle. Your baby can enjoy beans as finger food or pureed into a spread. Tofu can be eaten in small cubes. Seitan can be finely chopped and added to sauce or cut into small cubes and cooked. Also, as long as your little one is not allergic to nuts or seeds, your infant can also eat these as a ‘butter’ or spread. However, avoid whole nuts and seeds as these are choking hazards.
Check with your child’s pediatrician about introducing allergens into their diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids
These essential fatty acids are important for supporting heart, eye, and brain health.10
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids:
ALA: found in plant foods
DHA and EPA: found primarily in seafood
Interestingly, ALA must be converted into EPA and DHA within the body before it can be effectively used.10 But this process is very inefficient, meaning you need to eat much more ALA to gain the same benefits as eating smaller amounts of DHA and EPA.27
The good news is that fish get their DHA and EPA from marine plants, namely microalgae (a microscopic type of algae).28 And in fact, there are many supplements that provide EPA and DHA from vegan microalgae sources. Chat with your and your child’s health care provider to discuss your omega-3 needs.
Vegan food sources of ALA include: Flaxseed oil, chia seeds, English walnuts, ground flaxseed, canola oil, soybean oil, edamame, roasted seaweed and nori.10
Vegan omega-3’s in baby’s diet: Use flaxseed, canola, and soybean oils in cooking and in dressings. Chia seeds can be mixed into yogurt, hot cereal, or smoothies, or made into chia seed pudding. And ripped up roasted seaweed into bite-sized pieces your little one can enjoy! As always, be sure to provide your baby with foods in a texture and size you know they can handle.
This mineral is essential for your red blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen to your tissues.11 Not getting enough iron can leave you feeling fatigued and weak, and may eventually lead to iron deficiency anemia.3
Vegan food sources of iron: Fortified breakfast cereals, white beans, lentils, spinach, tofu, kidney beans, chickpeas, stewed canned tomatoes, baked potato, cashew nuts, green peas, raisins, whole wheat spaghetti, pistachios, broccoli, brown rice.11
Non-heme iron is found in plants and is not absorbed quite as well as animal-based heme-iron. However, a diet rich in vitamin C can help non-heme iron be absorbed better. Foods high in vitamin C include: bell pepper, orange, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, and tomatoes.12
Vegan food sources of zinc: Baked beans, pumpkin seeds, fortified breakfast cereal, cashews, chickpeas, almonds, kidney beans.14
Unfortunately, zinc is not found in many vegan food sources. Additionally, phytates in plant foods bind to zinc and prevent it from being absorbed very well by our bodies.14 Chat with your and your child’s health care provider to see if taking a supplement that includes zinc may be right for you.
Iodine is important for normal cell metabolism and for your thyroid to function properly.15 Deficiency can prevent your body from making adequate thyroid hormone and may lead to development of a goiter or enlarged thyroid.15
Vegan food sources of iodine: Seaweed (nori), iodized table salt, sliced breads made with iodate dough conditioner (you’ll know by looking for “potassium iodate” or “calcium iodate” in the ingredient list).
Studies indicate that vegans and vegetarians seem to be particularly vulnerable to not getting enough iodine, likely from the avoidance of dairy and seafood, the two most abundant sources of iodine for omnivores.16,17,18
Using iodized salt in cooking can help meet your and your child’s iodine needs. Be sure to chat with your and your baby’s health care providers for more information about your iodine needs.
This mineral is critical for healthy bones and teeth, as well as muscle contraction and nerve function.19
Vegan food sources of calcium: Calcium fortified orange juice, fortified soymilk, tofu made with calcium sulfate, soybeans, fortified breakfast cereals, spinach, kale, chia seeds, Chinese cabbage, pinto beans, broccoli.19
Just like with zinc, calcium in plant foods is often bound to oxalic acid and phytic acid, which reduces how much we can absorb and use.19 To help get enough, include a wide variety calcium sources throughout the week.
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, helps build and maintain strong bones, is involved in nerve transmission, and even helps with immune function.20
Vegan food sources of vitamin D: Mushrooms grown in UV light, fortified breakfast cereal, portabella mushrooms.20
Vitamin D is relatively difficult to get from food sources even for omnivores, with the best sources being fish and fortified dairy.20 However, most of our vitamin D comes from regular short exposures to the sun. When UVB light from the sun hits our skin, our body then produces vitamin D.21
Talk with your healthcare provider about having your blood levels checked to determine what degree of supplementation you may need, if any.
Vitamin B12 is important for the central nervous system, metabolism, formation of red blood cells and DNA, as well as helps with brain development during infancy.22 It may also play a role in helping prevent spinal and central nervous system birth defects during pregnancy.23
Because B12 is made by microorganisms, this vitamin is not naturally found in plant foods, yet is abundantly available from animal sources.24 While there is speculation that some plant foods, such as sea vegetables and chlorella, may contain enough B12, these are usually unreliable sources and do not contain enough to meet you or your children’s needs.25
Vegan food sources of B12: Fortified breakfast cereal, fortified plant-based meat alternatives, fortified plant-based milk alternatives, nutritional yeast.25
You may need a B12 supplement to help meet you and your child’s B12 needs, especially if you are not eating two to three B12 fortified foods per day.26 Chat with your and your child’s health care provider for more information.
Tips for following a vegan diet with your child
Alter the texture and consistency of vegan foods to meet your baby’s needs
Your baby can enjoy most of the same foods that you choose for yourself to help get the nutrients needed on a vegan diet. Just remember to follow appropriate food safety preparation guidelines and present the food in the right size, texture, and consistency based on their developmental readiness. Also note that babies need much less sodium, if any, and no added sugar.
Introducing Solids: Signs of Readiness
Talk with your health care provider and your child’s pediatrician about the need for supplementation
Ask especially about your needs for omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iodine, and calcium.
Balance your meals
Try to balance your meals and your baby’s meals by choosing lean proteins (like beans and tofu) with whole grains and fresh vegetables and fruits.
We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.
Our Happy Baby Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitians certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too, which means they’ve been there and seen that. They’re here to help on our free, live chat platform Monday - Friday 8am - 6pm (ET), and Saturday - Sunday 8am - 2pm (ET). Chat Now!
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