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Plant-based Pregnancy: Your Ultimate Guide

I’m Kayli Anderson, dietitian and natural foods chef. PBM is your headquarters for empowering, woman-centered plant-based nutrition and lifestyle guidance. 

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If you’re a vegan, vegetarian, or plant-forward mama planning for a healthy plant-based pregnancy, then this guide is for you!

Pregnancy is a beautiful time, but it can also be a strange, exhausting, and sometimes not-so-beautiful time. Your body is rapidly changing, you may be experiencing a rollercoaster of nausea and cravings, and the waves of panic that you will be responsible for a teeny human in a few short months are real! If you’re hoping to have a predominantly plant-based or vegan pregnancy, you may feel an extra layer of worry about getting enough of all the nutrients you and your growing baby need.

A plant-based diet offer a wealth of wonderful nutrition during pregnancy, and a well-planned plant-based diet is completely safe (and maybe even beneficial) during pregnancy. Also, a solid nutrition routine can be really grounding during this time of change. Knowing that you are nourishing your changing body (and your growing baby) can quell some of your worries and give you a sense of routine when everything else in life feels so… new! 

Here’s everything that pregnant plant-based mamas will benefit from paying special attention to. 

The Ultimate Guide To Plant-Based Pregnancy

How many calories should you eat during pregnancy?

Some women rejoice in the ability to eat a little extra, and others tire quickly of the added food prep. Since many of your vitamin and mineral needs increase during pregnancy, it’s important to get these additional calories from nutrient-dense foods. This is much easier in a plant-based pregnancy since many of the foods you’re eating (whole grains, beans, veggies, fruits, nuts, and seeds) are packed with nutrition. 

 

First Trimester: no additional calories needed

Second Trimester: +340 calories per day

Third Trimester: +450 calories per day

 

You can meet these needs by either:

  1. Adding an extra mini meal to your day. Think of this as an extra-large snack like a bowl of oatmeal, a nut butter sandwich, or a small helping of leftovers from lunch or dinner.
  2. Serving yourself a little extra at your main meals, and then adding an extra snack like trail mix, edamame in the pods, an apple and peanut butter, crackers and hummus, or an energy bar.

Nutrients To Know For Your Plant-based Pregnancy

Take a prenatal multivitamin

Because of the unique nutrition requirements during pregnancy, it’s recommended that all pregnant women take a prenatal vitamin, regardless of how “perfect” their diet is. A prenatal multivitamin helps fill in the gaps when beans and kale are the last things you want to eat. There are several vegan prenatal vitamins on the market. Since the contents of every supplement is different (I know, annoying!), be sure to read the nutrition label to see how much of each key nutrient a supplement contains. It’s likely that you may need to add in additional supplements to meet your needs. Need help picking a prenatal vitamin? Read this post.

Folate (important for all pregnant mamas)

Folate is a B vitamin that plays a critical part in embryo development in the earliest days of pregnancy. Leafy greens and beans are rich in folate, and people who eat a plant-based diet tend to do a better job meeting their folate needs compared to meat eaters. Many foods like breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals are also fortified with folate. However, because this vitamin is so important to preventing serious birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, the CDC recommends that all pregnant women take a folic acid (the synthetic version of folate) supplement. 

Related:  How To Choose The Best Prenatal Vitamin: The Ultimate Guide

Women who are pregnant need 600µg of folate each day. Folate is a staple in prenatal vitamins. A daily supplement of 400-800µg of folate, ideally beginning in the months before conception, is recommended. 

Iron and Vitamin C

With the expansion in your blood volume and the needs of your growing baby, iron needs increase by 50% in pregnancy. That’s a lot of iron! Luckily, your body’s ability to increase how much iron it absorbs and the lack of blood loss from menstruation will help you meet your needs. 

Pregnant women need about 27mg of iron each day, and possibly a little more if you are eating 100% plant-based or vegan. Many women struggle to meet these very high iron needs, so a supplement or very close attention to iron-rich foods is usually necessary. Below are some iron-rich plant-based foods. Pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods at the same meal can help boost iron absorption.

Plant-based Foods High in Iron: 

  • Almonds
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Broccoli
  • Beans
  • Bok choy
  • Cashews
  • Dark chocolate
  • Dried figs and raisins
  • Edamame
  • Kale
  • Lentils
  • Peanuts
  • Peas
  • Pistachios
  • Pumpkin
  • Spinach
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Tofu  

Plant-based Foods High in Vitamin C (Iron Enhancers):

  • Bell peppers
  • Broccoli 
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges)
  • Kale
  • Kiwi
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes

Zinc

Zinc needs increase to 11mg per day during pregnancy. Because the zinc in plant-based foods is not as easily absorbed as animal-based foods, it’s unclear whether plant eaters need to eat more zinc than omnivores. It’s probably wise to aim a little higher than the recommended 11mg and try to include a zinc-rich food with at least two meals a day.

 

Plant-based Foods High in Zinc:

  • Beans 
  • Fortified cereals 
  • Nuts
  • Sprouted grains and beans (pregnant women should avoid sprouts due to bacteria risk)
  • Tahini
  • Tempeh
  • Wheat germ
  • Whole grain bread  

Iodine

Iodine is important for the development of your baby’s brain. Pregnant women need 220mg of iodine per day. 

Plant-based foods naturally contain trace amounts of iodine, and it is found in higher amounts in seafood and seaweeds. Although it’s okay to eat sea vegetables as much as a few times per week, their iodine content can vary widely and some seaweeds have toxically high levels of iodine, putting you and your baby at risk. 

Related:  How To Choose The Best Prenatal Vitamin: The Ultimate Guide

The best way to meet your iodine needs is by either cooking with about ¼ tsp of iodized salt each day (which only equates to 580mg of sodium) or ensuring that your prenatal vitamin contains iodine. 

Calcium

Calcium needs do not increase with pregnancy because your amazing body is able to increase how much it absorbs from the food you eat. However, if you weren’t meeting your calcium needs pre-pregnancy, then now is the time to focus on this bone-building nutrient. Because you will be building a little skeleton over the next nine months, you want to be sure you are meeting the recommended 1,000 mg per day.

Plant-based Foods High in Calcium:

  • Fortified plant-based milks
  • Fortified orange juice
  • Tofu made with calcium sulfate (check the label)
  • Soybeans
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Chia seeds
  • Pinto beans
  • Broccoli

Vitamin D

Like calcium, your vitamin D needs also remain the same as before pregnancy. Pregnant women need 600 IU of vitamin D per day. The best sources of vitamin D are either adequate sun exposure or a supplement.  Your prenatal vitamin may contain vitamin D, so check the label. Learn more about vitamin D here.

Vitamin B12 (critical for vegan pregnant mamas)

Not getting enough B12 puts you at risk for depression, heart disease, and memory loss. It puts your baby at serious risk too. Vitamin B12 deficiency is very dangerous and can result in irreversible neurological damage before it’s even detected. A consistent source of B12 is a MUST for every woman eating a completely plant-based diet.

Luckily, a simple and inexpensive supplement will ensure you are getting the B12 you need. During pregnancy, your vitamin B12 needs increase to 2.6µg per day. Take a B12 supplement of at least 25µg daily. Why so much? We can only absorb small amounts at a time. If you took a once-weekly B12 supplement before pregnancy, switch to a daily supplement to ensure that your baby gets the daily dose they need.

Choline

Choline is the new kid on the block for pregnancy health. It’s important for placenta development and baby’s brain development at all stages.

In pregnancy, it’s recommended that you get at least 450mg of choline per day. Eggs are a rich source of choline. If you choose not to eat eggs, make sure you’re regularly eating choline-rich plant-based foods like quinoa, soy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, beans, and shiitake mushrooms. Because choline is so important, it may be wise for fully plant-based and vegan pregnant women to take a choline supplement. Most prenatal vitamins do not contain choline.

Protein

During pregnancy, you need about 25g more protein per day than you did pre-pregnancy. It takes a lot of protein to grow that baby and to support changes in your body! 

You can calculate your own protein needs using this formula:

Related:  Plant-based Nutrition & Fertility: The Ultimate Guide

Pregnancy Protein Needs = (pre-pregnancy weight in pounds x 0.45g) + 25g

You can meet your increased protein needs by including protein-rich foods at every meal and by serving yourself a little extra of the foods listed below, especially in the second and third trimesters.

 

Plant-based Foods High in Protein:

  • Beans (black, garbanzo, pinto, kidney, navy)
  • Lentils 
  • Dried peas
  • Edamame
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Soymilk
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Almonds and almond butter
  • Cashews and cashew butter
  • Pistachios
  • Brazil nuts
  • Walnuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Tahini
  • Quinoa 

Omega 3s

Omega-3s are known as essential fatty acids, which means they need to be an essential part of daily eating in order to meet needs. It is important for brain and eye health, healthy pregnancy, and is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cramps associated with PMS, endometriosis, and other chronic diseases. 

There are three important types: alpha-linoleic acid (ALA),  eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). 

ALA is abundant in plant-based foods, and pregnant women can meet their needs with 2 tbsp. of flaxseeds or chia seeds, 3 tbsp. hemp seeds, or about 1/4 cup walnuts per day.

EPA and DHA are not considered essential because the body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, however it is unclear how reliable and consistent this conversion is. Because adequate DHA is so important for fetal brain development, if you aren’t eating low-mercury fish two times per week, then it’s wise to take an algae-based DHA supplement of about 300mg per day. 

 

Nutrition Summary For Your Plant-based Pregnancy

  • Fuel your body and your baby
    • +350 calories per day in the second trimester
    • +450 calories per day in the third trimester
  • Add iron-rich foods to every meal, and consider an iron supplement if needed
  • Eat vitamin C-rich foods at as many meals as possible
  • Take a prenatal multivitamin
  • Make sure your prenatal provides 600µg of folate daily
  • Add zinc-rich foods to most meals
  • Cook with ¼ tsp of iodized salt each day or make sure your prenatal vitamin contains iodine
  • Check in with your calcium intake and vitamin D levels to make sure you’re continuing to meet your pre-pregnancy needs
  • Take a multivitamin or supplement that provides at least 25µg of vitamin B12 every day
  • Meet choline needs through eggs, choline-rich plant-based foods, or a choline supplement.
  • Add 3-4 servings of plant-based protein foods to your day
  • Eat a daily source of ALA omega-3 fats (2 tbsp ground flaxseeds or chia seeds, 3 tbsp. hemp seeds, or about ¼ cup walnuts)
  • Take at least 300mg of an algae-based DHA omega-3 supplement a few times per week

Want more support for your plant-based pregnancy?

Grab the free PBM Plant-based Pregnancy Checklist to ensure you’re checking all the boxes for you and your baby.

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