Can a vegan have a healthy pregnancy? By far the most common question I received when I fell pregnant with my third (and first vegan) baby. Concerns, comments and general interest I received them all. In an effort to normalize vegan pregnancies, as to add yet another healthy vegan pregnancy story, I will share with you my journey as a vegan mama to baby number 3!
My third pregnancy was actually my first vegan pregnancy. To this day when I look at Micah, I am still blown away that I made this human entirely out of plants. Maybe because I have been told my entire life that you need animal products to be healthy and grow properly. Or maybe I let the insecurities, fears, and anxieties of others influence my thought! But when I look at my son I see a healthy, happy, chubby little man.
Seeing him today makes me realize how wrong I was about what health can be. I wanted to share my experience because I think it is important to communicate that it is very possible to have a healthy vegan pregnancy and postpartum! With the right supplementation and support from your midwife, doctor or partner a healthy vegan pregnancy is absolutely attenable.
Pre-partum and my switch to veganism
To be fair, I will say that a vegan diet is not for everyone, heck I NEVER thought it was for me. Before I had Micah I was a full-blown carnivorous paleo. I ate meat or some form of animal product at EVERY meal. Eggs for breakfast, chicken for lunch and beef for dinner. I made my coffee with butter (yuck I know) and we had cheese and yogurt all the time for ‘gut-health’.
You see I was following all the latest health rules. After suffering most of my life with gut issues (a topic for another post) I turned to the paleo diet for help. So I began following this way of eating for health. But you know what, after 3 years and despite not being overweight or outwardly sick I felt like sh*t! Thyroid issues, low energy, brain fog, contastant hunger plagued me.
Lucky for me a good friend of mine became vegan, and out of sher curiosity (and to prove her wrong), I committed to only eating plants for 6 months. The initial switch was a bit painful. Mostly from the increases in fiber so I concentrated on making lots of cooked meals. Beans were soaked and tofu was pressed and slowly over those 6 months, I began to get myself back. I discovered I have an oil sensitivity and that eating TONS of veggies just made me feel good. It was like my body was waking up after a long sleep. And 3 months later I became pregnant with baby #3!
BUT, was I healthy, was I deficient, and how healthy is my baby compared to my other 2 children?
My vegan pregnancy
I transitioned into a plant-based diet a few months before I became pregnant. Being new to veganism I was initally nervous about growing a human without animal protein. I wanted to make sure my baby was receiving all the nutrients he needed and that I was not depriving my body or my baby of anything (echo the protein and iron debate).
Shortly after I discovered I was pregnant I asked my doctor to do some blood work to check my iron, calcium, B12, and folate. I was not on any prenatal at this point either (you can say baby #3 was a spur-of-the-moment decision, lol) so I was very nervous about the state of my nutrition. It is one thing to make a decision for yourself, but it is entirely another thing to decide something for another, especially a growing child.
My decisions when pregnant could affect him for life! So I was very happy to see that my blood results were all normal or in the high range of normal, except iron. Oh iron, you pesky little thing! Iron has always been an issue for me. Even as a meat-eater! So I started a vegan supplement plus b12 right away. To date, (Micah is almost 2 years old) I am happy to report that I for the first time in my life I have been able to stop taking iron supplements and maintain high iron levels! yay!
As the pregnancy progressed I continued to get my blood levels checked. This was to ensure the main nutrients often found deficient in a plant-based diet (calcium, iron, zinc) were within normal levels. They always came back normal, except iron which was slightly on the low end of normal (despite supplementing).
Plant-based eating can come in all shapes and sizes, so I want to take the time to mention that I focused on eating a whole foods plant-based diet. Lots of healthy fats, veggies, grains, fruit and smoothies with extra protein powder. I am confident that this was the reason I was able to have such a healthy pregnancy with good bloodwork. Remember lays chips are plant-based! The key is to make sure you are eating nutrient-dense foods.
The ugly side and the test of wills
Ok now for the bad news (sorry but it was not all roses and sunshine). This third pregnancy was a very hard one for me. Baby #1 and #2 were easy, movie type pregnancies. No vomiting, no major nausea and I worked with both full-time until a few days before they were born. This third time around that was not the case. At 10 weeks I had to start nausea medication just so I could make it to work. I had to take a lunch nap in my car just to get through the workday. And a post-work nap just to find the energy to make dinner. By 21 weeks I was put on medical leave because I felt so incredibly sick all the time.
At first, I chalked it up to finally having a girl, so imagine my surprise when I found out it was another boy hahaha. Then I thought it was because my iron was so low. In fact, my hemoglobin had also dropped a bit by this point. But despite my hemoglobin and iron levels returning back towards normal (after switching to a higher dose of iron), the sick feeling remained. It wasn’t until Micah was born that we realized why I may have been so sick (complications with his placenta).
But throughout my entire pregnancy, I was worried that my dietary choice was the cause of all this sickness. There were a few times when I was so sick and feeling so horrible that I questioned my decision to cut out animal protein while pregnant. So desperate to feel better I ate eggs on a few occasions to see if it helped. It did not!
Then my logical brain kicked in! The researcher side of me spent many hours reading peer-reviewed articles about veganism and it’s safety (Check this blog post for the resources ). All of which brough me back to the same conclusion. How can eating plants, beans, and fruit make a body deficient or sick! It seems so backwards that eating such a nutrient-dense diet could be viewed and criticized as being deficient or wrong! Tracking my macros- and micro-nutrients on chronometer and followed up with blood tests reassured me that I was not eating a deficient diet!
HOWEVER, one thing I must mention is that just being ‘plant-based or vegan’ does not mean you are eating well or even healthy. there are many processed foods or empty calory foods that are plant-based! If you are thinking of switching your diet, or if you are already eating this way, make sure to talk to a registered nutritionist to make sure you are eating a nutrient-dense diet and supplementing where needed. And no you can not eat a plant-based diet without supplementing. Just like you can’t eat a meatatarian diet without supplementing (see this article for references)
Is my vegan baby healthy?
Disclosure: I am speaking of health here in terms of my son’s wellness visits, his overall appearance, energy level, and development. To date no bloodwork has been taken to verify his iron, calcium, etc. This is our story, he is one data point. I am merely sharing our story and outcome. Please speak to your doctor and nutritionist if you plan on raising your child on a plant-based diet. Every situation and every person is different after all!
Ok so how was my baby, is he healthy, is he growing was he born at a normal weight? My son was born fairly quickly on Christmas day weighing 6 lbs 13 oz. He was my smallest baby (the other two were 7lb 13oz, and 7lb, 6oz) but healthy and just perfect. He is a very calm, patient, and happy toddler (as I write this). And despite being my smallest he is a CHUNK! Weighing in at almost 30 lbs at 22 months! I had, and still have, no issues nursing him, and my milk supply is good. I make sure to eat enough calories from whole plant-based foods and stay hydrated to allow my body to make enough milk for him! I think a huge part of successful breastfeeding has to do with hydration and caloric intake.
SO, was I healthy, yes I believe so. Was I deficient, absolutely not! And how healthy is my baby compared to my other 2 children? Well so far he is healthy and happy. He doesn’t get sick much despite having 2 older brothers, he is calm, sleeps pretty well and is always goofing around.
But there is one difference…. he has NO gas or digestive issues!!! Both my other two boys had MAJOR stomach cramps, gas, bloating and reflux as babies! So I will just leave it here that I think the main reason for this is my very clean diet. Especially in the first 6 months of his life. Which I did not do with my other two boys. I made sure to keep my diet free from many known irritants. I didn’t consume caffeine, chocolate, gluten, or heavy spices (and obviously eggs and dairy) and minimal to no alcohol.
Conclusion, was it worth it
Today I am so grateful and happy I trusted myself. I did the research I needed to make informed decisions about my health and the blood work to stay on track. If you are considering a vegan pregnancy, heck if you are just plain pregnant, regardless of your diet choice, make sure you are receiving all the nutrients you need from WHOLE foods. Download cronometer and track your food intake, ask for a few blood tests along the way, make sure you are hitting all your macros- and micro-nutrients (carbs, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals)! Don’t rely solely on your prenatal! If you are super sick, like I was, then try your best with soups, veggie stock, smoothies, and fresh juices and supplement with good high-quality supplements where you need it.
I would love to hear about your pregnancy journey. Were you plant-based? Paleo? Did you experience any nausea? Comment below.
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Until then, tchau