Is It Healthy to Stick to a Vegan Diet When Pregnant? We Asked a Doctor

You already know that sushi and alcohol are off-limits when you’re expecting. But what’s the deal with veganism and pregnancy? We tapped OB/GYN Dr. Jessica Shepherd to find out.

First, some good news for moms-to-be on a vegan or plant-based diet—you can absolutely continue to follow your healthy eating plan in pregnancy.

Yep, despite what you might have heard, eating a vegan or vegetarian diet while you’re expecting can be totally healthy for mom and baby. It just might take a little more planning on your part since some vital nutrients for your developing fetus are more easily be found in animal products—but that doesn’t mean you can’t get them elsewhere.

Dr. Shepherd cautions women to let their practitioner know whether they’re vegan, vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian (eats dairy and eggs) or lacto-vegetarian (eats dairy, no eggs), since they all have separate dietary needs that may need to be managed. “But in general, those on a vegan diet need to make sure they’re getting enough proteins, amino acids, iron, calcium, vitamins D and B12,” she tells us. Restricting calories could also be a problem (per the American Pregnancy Organization, women should eat an extra 200 to 300 calories in the second and third trimester of pregnancy).

But as Dr. Shepherd points out, someone could be lacking in vital nutrients or calories even if they’re not vegan. Under-nutrition can impair fetal development and growth, so it’s important that all women (whether they’re following a vegan diet or not) avoid nutritional deficiencies throughout pregnancy.

Wondering how to make sure you’re getting what you need for your growing bump? Good sources of protein for vegans include legumes and whole grains, while essential amino acids can be found in tofu, soy and whole grains. Doctors typically check iron levels around week 20 of pregnancy and may recommend a supplement if results are low (even meat-eaters may need this in pregnancy). For calcium, green leafy vegetables and fortified orange juice and almond milk can help pregnant women reach their 1,000 mg per day goal. Vitamin B12 is naturally found only in food that comes from animals but can also be found in fortified cereals and soy milk if your prenatal vitamin doesn’t offer enough. Similarly, you can take a vitamin D supplement if necessary (since the best way to get enough of this nutrient from food is from fish or milk).

While there’s no need for any additional tests at your OB’s office, Dr. Shepherd encourages women to talk about their diets with their doctor. “You could be vegan and eating potato chips all day, which obviously isn’t great,” she says. Likewise, someone else could be eating red meat every day and that might also need to be addressed. 

Bottom line: The advice for pregnant women following a vegan eating plan is the same as for meat-eaters: Make sure you eat a well-balanced and nutrient-rich diet, take your prenatal vitamin every day and attend all of your prenatal doctor appointments.