5 Common Vegetarian Pregnancy Myths DEBUNKED
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?