There is a widespread, and incorrect, belief that women cannot remain raw vegans during pregnancy. This erroneous belief stems from a lack of knowledge regarding what foods contain which nutrients. By the time most Americans reach high school they have already heard most, if not all, of the food and nutrition myths: “You can only get calcium from dairy products” and “You can only get protein from meat and fish” are two of my favorites.
If you’ve been raw for a while, you are probably well versed in whole food nutrition and are immune to such myths. If you have never subsisted on a plant-based diet, you may believe and spread some of those myths yourself. Most of these falsehoods have been around for decades and a disturbingly large number of people accept them as truth – thanks to the public education system, particularly those pertaining to pregnancy. As a result, vegan and vegetarian moms-to-be receive a LOT of criticism from people who are ignorant about plant-based diets and assume that it must be inadequate for producing a healthy child. Since the only cure for ignorance is information, I hope that anyone who still believes the myths will find this article enlightening.
The Most Recommended Pregnancy Nutrients
These are the nutrients that any diligent OBGYN will advise an expectant mother to consume in greater quantities during pregnancy.
Folate/Folic Acid – This nutrient, taken before and during pregnancy, can prevent neural tube defects – serious abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord, such as spina bifida and hydrocephalus. Consuming adequate amounts of folic acid/folate can also prevent low birth weight and premature birth.
The recommended daily allowance for folic acid/folate is 400mcg (minimum), with 600 to 800mcg recommended for pregnant women. The best whole food sources are asparagus, bok choy, spinach and other dark leafy vegetables, beets, peanuts, oranges and other citrus fruits.
Calcium – It not only builds strong bones and teeth, but the circulatory, muscular and nervous systems all depend on it. Even a child’s ability to develop a normal heart rhythm and blood-clotting abilities will depend on the mother’s calcium intake during pregnancy. And if she fails to consume enough calcium during her pregnancy, the baby will leech it from her bones and teeth, which can lead to health issues (for her) later on.
The RDA for pregnant women is 1,000 mg and no more than 2,500mg. The best whole food sources are seaweed, spinach, broccoli, okra, green snap beans, Chinese cabbage, kale and other dark green and leafy vegetables, sunflower seeds and almonds.
Vitamin D – Not only does vitamin D promote strong bones by helping the body absorb calcium, but it also reduces the risk of preeclamsia, low birth rate and gestational diabetes. This is based on research findings from 31 studies published between 1980 and 2012, each using between 95 and 1100 participants.
The RDA for pregnant women is 400 I.U. But some studies have shown that as much as 4,000 I.U. Is not only safe, but desirable. The best whole food sources of vitamin D are mushrooms – specifically, shiitake and portabella. Another natural source is completely free: The Sun.
Very little sun exposure is necessary to meet the RDA for vitamin D. Getting only 10 to 30 minutes of sun twice a week can help you meet the RDA. And since vitamin D is fat soluble, it can be stored in your body fat for later use.
Protein – Protein is critical to fetal growth and development, especially in the second and third trimesters.
The protein RDAs are calculated using 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for adults and 1.1 grams per kilogram of body weight during pregnancy and lactation. This is equivalent to 0.36 grams per pound for adults and 0.5 grams of protein per pound each day for pregnant and nursing women. So, even though the RDA has specified a standard amount of protein that pregnant women should consume, it is based on an average pregnancy weight, and may be either too little or too much for an individual mother’s needs, so it would be best to do the math and keep in mind that the amount will increase as the pregnancy advances.
It’s not at all difficult to get sufficient amounts of whole food protein to meet the demands of pregnancy, it’s simply a matter of choosing the right foods. And there’s a lot to choose from. The most widely available food sources are green and leafy vegetables, bean sprouts, sprouted almonds, and all kinds of nuts and seeds.
Iron – During pregnancy the mother’s blood volume expands to accommodate changes in her body and makes the baby’s entire blood supply – doubling the mother’s need for iron. Not getting enough iron can lead to anemia and low birth weight. It may also lead to fatigued and increased susceptibility to infections. The risk of preterm delivery is also greater.
The RDA for pregnant women is 27 mg per day. The best whole food sources of iron are spinach, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, apricots, potatoes, broccoli, and lentils (all varieties).
Essential Fatty Acids – These would include Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Alpha-linelenic acid (ALA). These are the “good” fats that lower cholesterol. They also help the placenta and other tissues grow, and studies have shown that “good” fats may help prevent low birth weight and premature birth. All three are essential to healthy fetal development. But DHA is the most critical, as it is needed for brain and eye development.
- ALA sources – Brussels sprouts, green leafy vegetables, like kale and spinach; flaxseeds (linseeds), mustard and hemp seeds, nuts (especially walnuts) and nut butters, olives and avocados.
- EPA sources – There are currently no known (direct) plant sources of EPA.
- DHA sources – Seaweed contains relatively small amounts, yet it is used to make DHA supplements for vegans. The DHA in those algal-oil capsules and the DHA in cooked salmon are nutritionally the same. Not surprising, since eating seaweed is how salmon and other fatty fish end up with DHA stored in their fat. If you’re uncertain about how much DHA you are getting in your diet, Algal-oil capsules are a great way to get a more concentrated and measured dose than eating seaweed alone can provide.
Our bodies have the ability to convert ALA to EPA and, to a much lesser extent, DHA. This conversion is considered relatively inefficient and dependent on genetics, age and even estrogen levels. Which would explain why the ALA to DHA conversion rate is higher in women than in men. These are factors that we have little or no control over. The Linus Pauling Institute reports that for healthy young women, approximately 21% of ALA is converted to EPA and only 9% to DHA. So, the more ALA you consume the more EPA and DHA you can make. But that’s not all.
There are ALA conversion factors that we can control. For instance, consuming sufficient amounts of protein, Vitamin B6 (pyroxidine), Vitamin B7 (biotin), Calcium, Copper, Magnesium and Zinc have been shown to improve the efficiency of the conversion process. And the best sources of these nutrients are fresh whole foods.
You should also be aware that a study conducted by the EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition), and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has discovered that vegan, vegetarians and other non-fish-eaters have EPA and DHA blood levels approximate to fish eaters. These results indicate that eating a plant-based diet can effectively convert ALA into the missing fatty acids.
There’s one way to be certain that you are getting sufficient amounts of all the essential fatty acids from your diet: a simple blood test. Such a test is a routine part of good pre-natal care, and can help you decide whether or not you require supplementation.
There is no RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for EPAs, however, Dr. Frank Sacks, Professor of Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health (who is a vegetarian), recommends 500mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day for people who do not eat fish or foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. EPA, DHA and ALA are all omega-3 fatty acids.
Dr. Sacks has also said, “If you are getting adequate ALA in your diet from oils and nuts, I am not sure you really need to take an algal DHA supplement. … the body partially converts ALA to EPA and DHA; it is not known if ALA has substantial health benefits as is, or whether it must be converted to EPA and DHA to produce most of the benefits. My current interpretation of the science is that ALA is important to nutrition because it is an essential fatty acid, and that at least part of its benefits come from its conversion to EPA and DHA. I don’t advocate that vegans take n-3 supplements if they are getting ALA from vegetable oils, vegetables, walnuts, and other vegetarian sources.”
(Note: N-3 supplements are omega-3s that come from marine sources, such as salmon or krill.)
The American Pregnancy Association (APA) recommends 300mg of DHA during pregnancy and 500mg of EPA+DHA, with a minimum of 220mg, for all adults. So, the APA and Dr. Sacks are on similar pages.
The Most Obscure Pregnancy Nutrients
These are the nutrients that you rarely hear mentioned in conjunction with pregnancy or pre-natal health, yet have proven to be extremely beneficial to the health of pregnant women and their unborn children. These nutrients are Fiber and Iodine.
Fiber – In addition to preventing constipation, hemorrhoids and reducing the likelihood of pregnancy induced diabetes, a recent study has shown that it also helps to prevent preeclampsia. The study, conducted by the Center for Perinatal Studies, Swedish Medical Center, in Seattle, Washington, studied 1,538 pregnant Washington State residents. The findings proved that there is a reduced preeclampsia risk with higher total fiber intake, which corroborates an earlier study. This new study also suggested that dietary fiber may reduce pregnancy-associated dyslipidemia, an important clinical characteristic of preeclampsia. And it doesn’t take much fiber to prevent this dangerous condition.
Pregnant women should consume a balance of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber will aid in the delay of glucose absorption which reduces the effects of pregnancy induced diabetes, while insoluble fiber aids in the digestion process and keeps the system aligned.
Pregnant women need to add 3 grams to the 25 grams per day that they should already be consuming, IF they are active. If they are sedentary, they should not add more than 2 grams more than usual per day. The best sources of both soluble and insoluble fibers are fruits like apples, tomatoes, oranges, strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, blackberries and raspberries. Vegetables, grains, seeds and nuts all contain insoluble fiber.
Iodine – This is another nutrient that is often overlooked when discussing pregnancy nutrition. Yet iodine may be essential to your unborn child’s mental capacity. Studies have shown that a deficiency, during pregnancy, can lead to mental retardation. One study in particular, conducted by researchers at Bristol and Surrey universities in England, studied 1,040 pregnant women and found that kids born to moms with iodine deficiencies had lower IQs and reading levels. This isn’t too surprising when you understand that iodine is critical for producing the hormones made by the thyroid gland, which directly impact the development of a fetus’s brain.
The RDA for pregnant women is 220 mcg per day. The most potent whole food sources of iodine are seaweed and sea vegetables – kelp, arama, hiziki, kombu, and wakame. But be careful, according to the Vegan Society, “If using seaweeds as an iodine source it is best to use seaweeds that have been found to have a fairly consistent iodine content. … Consumption of more than 100g/year (by dried weight) of most seaweeds carries a significant risk of thyroid disorder due to iodine intakes in excess of 1000 micrograms per day.” Organic strawberries and cranberries also contain iodine, as do peas, various types of beans, corn and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, potatoes with skin, Swiss chard and turnip greens.
What About B-12?
I know that someone will wonder about this, so I decided to answer before closing. There are many doctors who recommend that all women, regardless of their diet, take a B-12 supplement during pregnancy. While other doctors consider taking B-12 supplements unnecessary, unless a blood test shows otherwise. So, it’s not really a raw vegan pregnancy nutrition issue, but a B-12 deficiency issue.
In addition, there are doctors who believe that no one should supplement with B-12. Dr. Vivian V. Vetrano has stated, “There is no such thing as a B12 deficiency, even in 100% raw vegan food eaters. They do not have to eat dirt, animal products, or take pills to secure coenzymes of B12. Bacteria in the intestinal tract make it for us, and the metabolically usable and necessary forms of coenzyme B12 are contained in unprocessed, fresh natural plant foods, particularly in nuts and seeds. The real problem in so-called B12 deficiency is a failure of digestion and absorption of foods, rather than a deficiency of the vitamin itself. ” The doctor believes that vitamin B-12 deficiency is often a symptom of a larger health issue: Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and other digestive disorders.
Dr. Vetrano may be right, she may also be wrong. At this point, who can say for certain? I would advise every woman to do her own research on pregnancy nutrition, because new research studies are being conducted all the time, and what is thought to be true today may be proven a myth tomorrow.
Whether you wish to stay raw, add cooked, go vegetarian or include supplements, it’s always good to know that you have options and what those are. Every pregnancy is unique, and what works for one woman may or may not work for another. This is why it’s important for expectant mothers to do whatever feels right for them, regardless of the criticism it may elicit from friends and family. Trust your own instincts. They are a powerful tool that can help guide you to what you need to lower your risks and produce a healthy child.
Note: As always, you should consult with your doctor before making any drastic dietary changes.