5 Pregnancy Diet Myths Debunked

Written by Dr. Miranda Graham

Due to misguided recommendations of some physicians, many vegans consider transitioning back to consuming meat and dairy products when they find out they are pregnant. Although doctors have good intentions while giving this advice, I also believe that many physicians who recommend eating animal products, especially while pregnant, have not read the scientific research regarding the harm that meat, dairy, and eggs have on the human body, or even the data showing that a well-planned plant-based diet is healthy for any stage of life, including pregnancy and infancy.

The reasons that some health care professionals give as to why eating meat is necessary, tend to include vitamin B12, protein, iron, omega-3 fatty acids and DHA. I do not agree that these are reasons to eat meat, and here is why:

VITAMIN B12

Vitamin B12 is very important for the brain, brain stem and nerves, red blood cell formation and heart health. It is vital during pregnancy as it is necessary for the development of your baby’s central nervous system. Babies of women who have B12 deficiency, do not get enough B12 stored in their livers and may themselves become deficient within the first 6 months after birth. It is the only micronutrient that vegans in today’s modern society do not consume through whole plant-based foods. 

This is why some physicians become afraid of the word vegan when it comes to pregnant patients. What they don’t tell you is all you need to do is take a tablet of cyanocobalamin, either once a day (100 mcg) or once a week (2500 mcg) and you should bet perfectly fine with regards to B12. The exception to this would be if you have a condition in which you are not able to absorb B12, in which case it wouldn’t matter if you were vegan or not.  

PROTEIN

This dreaded question that all vegans dread is even frequently asked by some doctors: “Where will you get your protein?” 

Pregnant people need about 0.8-0.9 grams of protein per kilogram of their own weight per day. This means someone who weighs 60 kg (132 lbs) is recommended to get 48-54 grams of protein a day. This is easily doable with plant foods, especially when you are getting in your beans, greens, legumes, nuts, and seeds. 

Animal protein is known to be carcinogenic, and high consumption of meat during pregnancy can lead to pre-eclampsia as well as gestational diabetes. 

Although meat and dairy are high in protein, they come in the same package as saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Broccoli, on the other hand, comes with fiber, antioxidants, sulforaphane which has anti-cancer properties, in addition to the protein. 

IRON

When patients are found to be iron deficient, especially during pregnancy, many physicians have the knee jerk reaction of either recommending you eat red meat to be able to get the iron that you can “more easily absorb” or recommend you take iron supplements.

Why would you want to have to eat something unhealthy, cruel and bad for the environment just to get iron when greens and beans are high in iron as well as fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants? 

Bonus: When you consume greens and beans with fruit and vegetables high in Vitamin C, it makes it so that you are able to absorb even more iron. 

When iron consumption is low, iron absorption in the intestine is regulated and increased. When iron consumption is high, the amount that you are able to absorb decreases. Try getting your iron through your diet alone; Add some lime and bell pepper to your salad or bean burrito, top off that lentil soup with some pico de gallo, put some spinach and tomato on your chickpea burger. If this doesn’t help you cure your deficiency, then you can take iron tablets (preferably in low doses). 

Although not getting enough iron can be dangerous for human health, too much iron has been associated with colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, diabetes.  

OMEGA-3 AND DHA

A common recommendation amongst physicians for pregnant women is to eat fish to get omega 3, but only twice a week. Why is that? 

Fish can have high concentrations of mercury which can be very dangerous for your developing baby. Fish is also the biggest contributor of methionine, an essential amino acid, in the diet. When consumed in large amounts it has been associated with different types or cancers such as skin cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer as well as premature aging.

Why eat fish when you can eat ground flax seed for your omega 3 fatty acid needs? Flax seeds are the greatest source in the world for Omega-3s. In the body, it is converted into EPA and DHA, which are vital for your brain function and the development of your baby’s central nervous system. You are able to convert more Omega-3 to DHA if you reduce the amount of Omega-6 in your diet, mostly found in refined oils. This is one of the reasons I recommend a whole food, plant-based diet for not only pregnant women but for everyone. 

To be on the safe side, if you are not eating only unprocessed vegan food, it is a good idea to consider taking DHA supplements throughout your pregnancy and while nursing. Vegan supplements are made using algae and the recommended daily dose is 200 mg. 

ANIMAL FAT

Meat, dairy, eggs are high in saturated fat and trans fat which are known to raise LDL cholesterol in humans and cause cardiovascular disease. Sometimes referred to as “bad cholesterol”, serum levels of LDL are one of the most important indicators of clogged arteries, which go on to cause heart attacks, strokes and arterial insufficiency in the extremities. 

Years ago, when I was a medical student taking pathology, I learned that in the Western hemisphere, fatty streaks in the aorta are found in virtually everyone following a Western diet by the age of ten. That has now fallen to the age of three, meaning that most three-year-olds who consume a Western diet, already have the first grossly visible lesion in the development of atherosclerosis. 

High levels of LDL in pregnant women have been associated with early cardiovascular disease starting from within the womb. Anecdotally, the fetuses of pregnant vegan women who do not consume refined oils, tend to have better arterial flow when seen on ultrasounds than their meat-eating counterparts. 

CONCLUSION 

Vegans can have perfectly healthy pregnancies as long as they eat enough calories and get the micronutrients they need, with the added benefit of preventing future cardiovascular disease for their baby from the womb. Just be sure to:

  1. Get a reliable source of vitamin B12, 100 micrograms of cyanocobalamin per day, 1000 mcg 3 times a week or 2500 mcg once a week. 

2. Eat beans and other legumes, greens, nuts and seeds to boost your protein intake. 

3. Eat iron-containing foods such as greens and beans together with fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C. 

4. Add 1-2 Tablespoons of ground flaxseeds (per day) to your oatmeal, smoothies or soups, and a DHA supplement if you are pregnant or nursing. 

5. Avoid animal fats completely, as well as coconut and palms oils which are almost pure saturated fat. 

RESOURCES

C Napoli, F P D’Armiento, F P Mancini, A Postiglione, J L Witztum, G Palumbo, W Palinski. Fatty streak formation occurs in human fetal aortas and is greatly enhanced by maternal hypercholesterolemia. Intimal accumulation of low density lipoprotein and its oxidation precede monocyte recruitment into early atherosclerotic lesions. J Clin Invest. 1997 Dec 1;100(11):2680-90.

D R Labarthe. Prevention of cardiovascular risk factors in the first place. Prev Med. 1999 Dec;29(6 Pt 2):S72-8.

H C McGill Jr, C A McMahan, S S Gidding. Preventing heart disease in the 21st century: implications of the Pathobiological Determinants of Atherosclerosis in Youth (PDAY) study. Circulation. 2008 Mar 4;117(9):1216-27.

C J McNeal, T Dajani, D Wilson, A E Cassidy-Bushrow, J B Dickerson, M Ory. Hypercholesterolemia in youth: opportunities and obstacles to prevent premature atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2010 Jan;12(1):20-8.

“Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets.”Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109.7 (2009): 1266-282. Web.

Geissler C, Singh M. Iron, Meat and Health . Nutrients. 2011 Mar; 3(3):283-316.

Steele TM, Frazer DM, Anderson GJ. Systemic regulation of intestinal iron absorption. IUBMB Life. 2005 Jul; 57(7):499-503.

J F Gould, L G Smithers, M Makrides. The effect of maternal omega-3 (n-3) LCPUFA supplementation during pregnancy on early childhood cognitive and visual development: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Mar;97(3):531-44.

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