Healthy living during pregnancy is the bedrock of your child’s health. Eating a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables and avoiding processed foods promotes your baby’s health as well as your own; however, special care must be taken to meet the increased nutritional needs of you and your baby combined. Let’s take a close look at the essential components of a diet through pregnancy.
Benefits to Baby
First of all, celebrate the protection a raw vegan diet provides your baby! By avoiding canned foods you’re avoiding a leading cause of BPA exposure; BPA has been linked to low birthweight (1) and decreased thyroid function (2). Avoiding foods cooked at high temperatures means that you are not exposed to chemicals that are released from nonstick cookware at high temperatures (3). Trans fats cross the placenta, so the baby effectually eats whatever trans fats the mother eats, and trans fats have been associated with a host of disease states (4). Avoiding dairy means avoiding a source of hormones and growth factors that have been implicated in hormone-dependent cancers (5).
This is also a time to take inventory of what your diet is offering your baby as well as what it protects them from. It can be easy, with any diet, to fall into stale and predicable habits. This would be a mistake during pregnancy. Eating a wide variety of foods is the best way to ensure you get the wide variety of vitamins and minerals that are beneficial or even fundamentally essential for your child’s growth. With this in mind, let’s go through some of the most important dietary needs during pregnancy one by one.
To say a pregnant woman is “eating for two” is a bit of a misnomer. During the first trimester of pregnancy there is no need to eat more than your regular amount of calories. However, in the second trimester you should be eating an additional 340 Calories a day, and 450 Calories in the third trimester (6).
The normal amount of weight gain for a healthy pregnant woman is about 25–35 pounds. Women who were underweight to begin, or who are carrying twins, should gain more weight, 35–45. Women who are overweight do not need to gain as much; they should gain about 10–20 pounds (7). However, sources may vary somewhat on these exact numbers: other guidelines set out the optimal amounts of weight gain as 28-40 pounds for underweight women (BMI less than 18.5), 25-35 pounds if her body weight is in the norm (BMI 18.5-24.9), and 15-25 pounds for high body weight (BMI 25 and above)(8). Keep in mind that BMI is influenced by percentage of lean muscle as well as percentage of fat.
Charting weight gain can help inspire you to get enough calories and varied foods. A 2009 IOM and National Research Council (NRC) report entitled “Weight Gain During Pregnancy: Reexamining the Guidelines” found that charting weight gain during pregnancy can lead to better nutrition and physical activity (9). However, don’t stress yourself out with strict rules! Pregnancy is a time to listen to your body and respect it, not to stress yourself out over numbers and comparing yourself to others.
A developing baby needs approximately 2.2 pounds of protein over the course of a pregnancy, so it’s necessary to up the proportion of protein you eat to about 1.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (10). This amount is up from the Institute of Medicine’s general guideline of 0.8 grams/kg/day of protein (11). It’s easy to find online tables of the protein contents of vegan foods (12).
Sprouts from protein-rich seeds, like legumes, provide especially high levels of protein. Sprouts from dried peas provide 10.6 grams of protein per half cup (over 20g in a full cup)! Soybean sprouts have 9 grams of protein per cup; lentils 7 grams per cup; and kidney beans 7.7 grams per cup (13). If you buy sprouts from a store, be extra-careful that they are bought fresh and eaten quickly, as the moist environment can be welcoming to harmful bacteria (14).
It is estimated that over 40% of pregnant women worldwide are anemic, at least half of which cases are caused by iron deficiency (15). Besides preventing anemia in the mother, iron aids the production of hemoglobin and prevents low birth weight. Vegan mothers need as much as 50 milligrams of iron daily (16). High-iron foods include dried beans, spinach, black-strap molasses, and dried fruits (17) Consuming plenty of Vitamin C will help your body to absorb and use iron, as well as boosting your immune system.
Be aware of the symptoms of iron deficiency. Common symptoms include fatigue, weakness, paleness, dizziness, and susceptibility to infections (18). If you have sudden cravings to chew ice, or unusual cravings for things that aren’t food (like dirt), you may be experiencing the anemia syndrome known as pica.
Even meat-eating mothers sometimes need iron supplementation. Iron supplementation for mothers at risk has been shown to ensure babies are not born with low weight. However, iron supplements may cause unpleasant side effects, like nausea, constipation, or a metallic taste in the mouth (15). If this is the case, taking iron supplements only intermittently (two or three times a week instead of every day) may help.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium builds strong bones and teeth, prevents blood clots, and supports nerve and muscle function (19). The U.S. Institute of Medicine recommends a daily consumption of 1000 mg calcium for pregnant and lactating women; the average consumption of calcium in western countries is about 800 mg for young women (20).
Dark leafy greens are especially high in calcium. However, pay mind to the bioavailability of calcium; that is, how much calcium the body can actually absorb of what is present in the food. For example, spinach contains high levels of calcium, but it also has high levels of oxalic acid which bind to the calcium, meaning that the bioavailablity is only about 5%. In contrast, kale has a bioavailability of 59%. Even though spinach contains a higher amount of calcium in a gross sense, you’d have to eat more than four times the amount of spinach as you would kale to get the same amount of beneficial calcium (21).
Vitamin D boosts mood, facilitates the body’s use of calcium, and best of all, it’s available for free from sunlight. Excessive sun exposure does not cause vitamin D toxicity, and vitamin D overdose from food sources is extremely unlikely. When supplements are taken, however, care must be taken to avoid harmfully high levels (22).
Vitamin A is another vitamin that is abundantly available in raw fruits and vegetables, and helpfully signals its presence through vibrant colors: bright orange and yellow and deep green fruits and vegetables.
The National Research Council’s recommended dietary allowance for vitamin A during pregnancy is 1,000 retinol equivalents (RE)/day, which is actually more than the amount of retinol and carotenoids (beta-carotene) in what it considers an average balanced diet. High levels of vitamin A supplementation before and during pregnancy have been associated with birth defects. However, Beta-carotene (naturally occurring in food) has not been associated with vitamin A toxicity. So, for a healthy person it’s best to get vitamin A from your diet and not supplement (23).
“B Vitamins” refers to a variety of vitamins with a variety of functions, including: B1/Thiamine, which supports energy and nervous system function; B2/Riboflavin, which maintains energy, good eyesight, and healthy skin; B3/Niacin, which promotes healthy skin, nerves and digestion; and B6/Pyridoxine, which helps form red blood cells and ameliorates morning sickness (19).
B vitamins can be destroyed by cooking, so a raw vegan diet is an especially good source of healthy levels. While it’s true that somebody who is lacking in B vitamins will feel fatigued or weak, B vitamins are not direct sources of energy… and additionally, taking high levels of B vitamins can mask the symptoms of other vitamin deficiencies… so don’t be tempted to self-prescribe supplements without medical consultation (24).
Folic acid… yet another B vitamin, B9… is absolutely essential to support the placenta and ensure proper development of the baby’s spine and spinal cord. Fortunately, it’s abundantly available in a wide variety of raw fruits and vegetables, such as oranges, strawberries, green leafy vegetables, spinach, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, beans, and nuts (19).
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for zinc for pregnant women 19 years old and older is 11 milligrams daily (slightly more for pregnant teenagers; slightly more for breastfeeding mothers)(25) Plant sources do not contain as much bioavailable zinc as animal sources, so vegetarians sometimes require as much as 50% more of the RDA for zinc than non-vegetarians (26). Soaking and sprouting beans is a great way to increase the amount of zinc they provide.
A Final Word of Encouragement…
I’d like to leave you with the advice of Sarah, the “Raw Food Mum”, who shares her honest experiences as a raw food mother (27):
“What I would recommend to any mum who is faced with not being able to do a RAW pregnancy is be gentle on yourself. Let your body guide you.”
She maintained a mostly-raw diet, but found that strong aversions and cravings necessitated eating some cooked food. She says, “I felt that my identity as Raw foodie was being challenged to my core!”
“However what I did learn very quickly is to never judge a person and their journey in life!”
One of the benefits of following a raw vegan diet is to become more well-attuned to your body’s natural needs. Every person is different; every pregnancy is different. The Raw Food Mum and others can share encouragement and their stories, but at the end of the day, you need to listen to your body.
Antonia is a science enthusiast with a keen interest in health nutrition. She has been intensely researching various dieting routines for several years now, weighing their highs and their lows, to bring readers the most interesting info and news in the field. While she is very excited about a high raw diet, she likes to keep a fair and balanced approach towards non-raw methods of food preparation as well. Read more by Antonia here, and SUBSCRIBE!
Sources for this article include: