Updated: Aug 3, 2021
As I near the end of this second pregnancy, Google Ads seems have me pinned. Prenatal supplements flood my Instagram feed, gender reveal videos consume my YouTube homepage, and a slew of both reputable and malpractice-grade nutrition advice floods my email inbox from wellness bloggers far and wide.
From "elevated risks of miscarriage" to "the dangers of deficiency" - the fear-based messaging truly know no bounds.
And since pregnancy and growing one's family comes with enough anxiety alone, I figured I'd take this opportunity to debunk some of the most common prenatal nutrition myths I come across as plant-based Registered Dietitian.
Myth #1. You'll start to crave meat again.
Well, maybe! But not for the reasons you might suspect.
Since red meat is rich in protein and iron, both essential nutrients for a healthy pregnancy, many people believe it’s a healthy choice for expecting Mamas. And while it's true that protein and iron needs are increased during pregnancy, this doesn’t mean meat is the only, or even the best, source of the stuff.
In fact, one meta-analysis summarizing the results of seven independent research experiments found that women consuming diets rich in processed and high-fat meat products during pregnancy were at increased risk of having low-birth weight babies. And another study showed that children of moms who had a high animal protein intake during pregnancy were more likely to be overweight 20 years later. On the other hand, observational studies have shown that vegan women have lower rates of cesarean section, neonatal and maternal mortality, and reduced rates of post-partum depression. Plant-based diets may also reduce the risk of pregnancy-related conditions such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and excessive weight gain. And high maternal consumption of fruits and vegetables during pregnancy has been associated with reduced risk of asthma, eczema, type 1 diabetes, neural tube defects, and childhood cancers.
And while it is widely known that well-planned plant-based diets are appropriate for all ages and life stages, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, that doesn’t stop the occasional anecdote of “vegan woman turned meat-eater during pregnancy” from continuing to attract attention and speculation from the public. If a woman starts to crave red meat during a season of life where her nutrient needs are elevated and extremely vital, that must mean we NEED meat nutritionally, right??
The truth is, while it may be more comfortable for pregnant women to attribute their cravings to the assumed nutrient needs of their bodies, research does not at all support this theory. In fact, the only craving known to be the biochemical result of nutrient deficiency is pica, a condition related to low iron-stores that causes intense cravings for non-nutritive substances such as ice chips, dirt, mud, or paper. Unlike pica, pregnancy cravings are not actually grounded in nutrient need nor deficiency. If they were, a craving for protein or iron could just as easily be satisfied by a hearty serving of lentils or chickpeas.
Contrarily, research actually shows that expecting Mamas’ cravings are more likely emotionally charged, and the psychological result of a desire comfort or nostalgia in an uncomfortable and uncertain season of life. Studies show that the majority of cravings pregnant women experience are specifically aimed at high-sugar or high-fat foods, not nutrient-dense ones. Which explains why you’ll find more husbands frantically running out for ice cream pints and warm donuts, and less-so lining up for salads and green smoothies on behalf of their child-bearing spouses.
Ironically enough, meat and animal products are actually the most common food aversions during pregnancy. This phenomenon is especially common in the first trimester and is thought to be a biological adaptation designed to protect the developing fetus from food-borne illnesses and pathogens, which are more commonly found in animal foods than the plants.
Regardless of where your cravings take you, rest assured there’s plenty of reasons to indulge in those nostalgic flavors during these trying months of change, growth and uncertainty. If you do eat plant-based and hope to stick to that for the duration of your pregnancy, know that there are plenty of high-quality meat, dairy and egg substitutes out there to help recreate your childhood comfort-food favorites. Recipes like my BBQ Lentil Sloppy Joes, Creamy Vegan Mac and Cheese, and Plant-Based High-Protein Lasagna are some of my go-tos when I’m in need of nostalgic flavors - but not wanting to abandon my wellness, ethical or environmental goals altogether.
Myth #2. You don't need supplements or vitamins.
Whole foods should always be our first choice when it comes to satisfying the body’s nutrient needs. But in the modern world, with its polluted waterways, depleted soil and plethora of processed foods, a high-quality prenatal vitamin/supplement routine can act as a vital tool for insurance (and convenience) purposes. After all, a precious life growing inside of you is no time to mess around or take chances in the deficiency department.
Vegan moms-to-be may benefit from iron-rich prenatal vitamins, a vitamin B12 supplement, choline, supplemental DHA, or any others needed to ensure potential nutrient gaps in the diet are covered (which may vary, from woman to woman). I’ll leave one of my favorite prenatal nutrition resources below, that I love to refer back to when assessing my own intake, any potential nutrient shortcomings, and also analyzing the quality various pre-natal vitamins.
Be sure to keep in mind, however that supplements should be just that: supplemental. They are intended only to “top off” our already significant intakes of these nutrients from plenty of whole grains, beans, legumes, greens/veggies, fruits, nuts, & seeds – not intended to replace a balanced diet in any way. And while we may, as vegans, attain the majority of certain nutrients (like vitamin B12, for example) from high-quality supplements, we should still make our best effort to consume foods rich in these micronutrients (such as fortified plant milks & tofu, nutritional yeast, etc.) to ensure we are striving for a diet that is as varied and adequate as possible.
For more supplement recommendations and whole foods forms of hard-to-find nutrients on a plant-based diet, feel free to reach out privately. I'd love to work alongside you in order to tailor-make a high quality prenatal supplement routine with your distinct needs in mind.
Myth #3. Higher starch intake = higher risk of gestational diabetes.
While it's true that vegetarian proteins such as beans and legumes are technically higher in carbs than meat, dairy and eggs – these starchy foods couldn’t be further from the culprit behind the chronically elevated blood sugar levels seen in gestational diabetes (GDM). Whole grains, beans, legumes, vegetables, and yes - even fruits, are carbohydrates that come packaged with beneficial fiber, which acts to slow the release of those natural sugars into the bloodstream. These are the foods that our bodies, brains and hormones were designed to consume in abundance and thrive upon.
So how come carbohydrates get such a bad rap?
Carbohydrate-rich foods are often vilified in the world of diabetes care because they easily illustrate the symptoms of insulin resistance, but not the cause. It is only when diets consistently rich in saturated fat impair the functioning of insulin, the hormone that controls our blood sugar, that carbohydrate-rich foods begin to pose some cause for concern.
Studies like this one continue to demonstrate that pregnant women with the highest intakes of meat, fish and eggs are nearly twice as likely to suffer from GDM than their vegetarian counterparts. And even more telling, the same study found that women with the highest intakes of wheat, rice and fruit had the lowest (about half) the risk of developing the disease when compared to women with the lowest intakes of these starchy foods. This of course, falls in line with the plethora of research suggesting that low-carb diets are actually dangerous during pregnancy, as they place infants at higher risk for birth defects such as neural tube deformities.
However, this is not to say that all carbohydrates are equal or healthy in excess. High-glycemic, low-fiber, refined, or “simple” carbs such as sugary candies, juices, and ice creams are still far from health foods. But when it comes to preventing gestational diabetes, aiming for plenty of fibrous whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables (as well as reducing one’s intake of insulin-impairing saturated fat) - is just what the doctor ordered.
Myth #4. The tale of "incomplete proteins".
Aaaah, the old rumor-mill. 'Tis truly the gift that keeps on giving.
If you’re relatively new to vegetarian/vegan-ism, you may have heard the claim that plant foods need to be paired in certain ways to create “complete proteins”. This long-since debunked theory originally stemmed from the thought that only animal proteins are “complete” – meaning they contain all nine of the “essential” amino acids. Which of course implied that plants lack one or more of these essential amino acids – a statement now know to be entirely untrue.
Whole plant foods do contain all nine essential amino acids, some just happen to be lower in certain amino acids than others. For example, beans are relatively low in methionine, and grains relatively low in lysine. But this doesn’t mean we have to “pair up” grains and beans at mealtimes in order to get sufficient amounts of each (although, often times our taste buds prefer to pair them anyways). Our body does this for us by storing amino acids in a sort of “pool”, which the body can then pull from, utilizing those various amino acids when needed.
As long as we are eating a variety of whole plant proteins on a daily basis, including whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Some of my favorites include oats, quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, peanut and almond butters, tahini, tofu, tempeh, chickpeas, lentils, kidney, black and pinto beans. You can see my "what I eat in a day" videos/blog posts for specific meal and snack ideas regarding my favorite ways to cook and use these protein-packed staples.
Myth #5. Straying From the Lifestyle Means You've "Failed".
This is a complicated topic; one that I think the vegan community often times struggles to extend to one another the same compassion we give to animals so freely.
I want to preface this by saying, from an ethical perspective…I can’t tell you what’s best for your peace of mind or family. I understand the horrific realities of some of these industries and resonate with any goals you may have to avoid supporting them. However, women choose to deviate from veganism and vegetarian diets for all kinds of reasons. And I don’t believe it does this movement any good to shame them for doing so.
Whether it be the result of a doctor’s sincere but misinformed nutritional advice, or the result of crippling nausea/hyperemesis, where perhaps the only foods that feel tolerable are low-fiber ones - every woman is entitled to make her own dietary choices and adjustments. Yes, even those that may conflict with their own or others’ health, ethical or environmental interests. Because the truth is, shaming people (who may already feel guilty, conflicted, or ashamed) is not an embodiment of love and compassion for all. And it certainly doesn’t make this lifestyle any more appealing for them to return to post-partum.
Not only that, but there are real scientifically-sound reasons why a 100% vegan pregnancy and childhood may not be perfectly healthy and realistic in today’s largely omnivorous society. Take the case of food allergy prevention, for example. Almost 8% of American children suffer from food allergies. And yes, much of that shift is suspected to be due to antibiotic exposure (with low doses found in most meat products) leading to a disruption in gut microbiome & thus inappropriate immune activity. But we also know that delayed introduction of common food allergens like peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, and YES - eggs, dairy, fish & shellfish can increase a child’s risk for developing allergies to those foods. And like it or not, our children will likely go on to try (or be unintentionally exposed to) those foods one day. So, in an effort to raise happy, healthy, allergy-free children…what’s the happy medium here? From a strictly scientific perspective, the research supports early & often introduction of the top 9 food allergens kids are most at risk for: peanuts, cow’s milk, shellfish, tree nuts, eggs, fin fish, wheat, soy & sesame. Early consumption of these allergens in infancy is associated with a LOWER prevalence of food allergies and this benefit is even more drastic in high-risk infants (those with severe eczema or another known allergy).
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to slap the “unethical” label on any woman or family simply making a well-meaning choice to preserve their own safety and survival the best they know how.
Are you doing your best to be an informed parent and compassionate citizen? Fabulous.
Are attempting to balance nutrition that blesses your body with food choices that serve your mental wellness and the safety of those you share this planet with? Amazing.
You’ve got #momgoals written all over you.
This post was written & medically reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
Grace Pascale, MS, RDN. Grace Pascale Nutrition.