Recently, more Australians opt for meat-free diets while some are cutting out animal products altogether and going solely on vegan. But is this safe for pregnant women and babies? It is possible to meet the specific nutrient requirements of pregnancy, breastfeeding and infancy while following a vegan diet, but there is a catch or rule for that: it must be well-planned.
Currently, researchers have developed some criteria to guide vegan food choices during the crucial life stages of pregnancy, lactation, infancy and early childhood. These useful criteria will help form the nutritional foundation of a healthy vegan diet.
- You MUST meet the total kilojoule needs by eating large amounts and a wide variety of plant foods. The plant food groups include grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruit, with an emphasis on whole foods and those that are minimally processed. Also, take care to ensure your fibre intake is not excessive during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood. Too much fibre means you will fill up before you have eaten enough food to meet all your nutrient needs.
- Ensure to choose your vegetable fat sources and quantities carefully. Many high-fibre vegan foods are low in kilojoules and need a lot of chewing. By including higher-fat choices you can boost the number of kilojoules in each meal or snack so infants get enough kilojoules to grow properly. To ensure the omega-3 fats are well metabolised, consume plenty of food that are rich in omega-3 fats, such as ground chia seeds, flaxseed oil and walnuts as well as fat sources like olive oil. Avoid foods rich in omega-6 fats, such as sunflower and safflower margarine and oil, and tropical fats including coconut and palm oils, as they can compete with the omega-3 fats to be metabolised. You can give omega-3s a competitive advantage by reducing the other fat types.
- Ensure you are getting enough calcium and vitamin D. For you to achieve this, you need to consume plant foods rich in calcium, including calcium-fortified soy and nut beverages, some breakfast cereals, tofu, nuts and seeds. However, vitamin D status depends on sun exposure and supplements rather than diet.
- Take vitamin B12 supplements or use foods fortified with vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is needed to make red blood cells, to make myelin which insulates nerves, for some neurotransmitters that help the brain function, and to make DNA too. Such fortified foods include some dairy-free soy and nut milks.