In This Article
- Plant-based and pregnant!
- What to eat, how much weight to gain, and how to modify your workout
- The benefits of breast milk
- Do’s and don’ts of starting on solids
Congratulations on being pregnant! Whether or not this is your first pregnancy, get set for that journey into the unknown—the exciting roller-coaster ride that comes along with making another human being. You never know what to expect as your body undergoes major, miraculous changes. All you can do is ride the waves and provide your body and the body of your growing baby with excellent nutritional support.
In this article, we explain precisely what a plant-based mama needs to support a developing baby. Throughout pregnancy, your body changes, and so do your needs. Knowing which substances to avoid, which foods provide the right nutrients, and how to safely continue exercising are all laid out for you here. This article takes you from conception through your baby’s first year, describing how you can best set up your baby’s health for life.
Growing a Healthy Baby
Your baby’s health is predetermined months—if not years—before conception. Both what you eat and what you avoid directly impact the future well-being of your baby. A whole food, plant-based diet during gestation and throughout the first 10 years is the gift that continues to give for the entirety of your child’s life.
So many things have to go right to create a healthy baby. Your little human starts from the union of two cells, dividing and transforming over a series of millions of processes during the course of 9 months—or, more accurately, 40 weeks. Aside from the nausea, heartburn, constipation, discomfort, and weight gain, you’re largely unaware of all the events taking place inside your womb. What can you do to help your body have everything it needs for the ultimate creation?
First, you should avoid the following, which are harmful to the developing fetus:
Caffeine: Limit your total caffeine intake from tea, coffee, soda, and chocolate to no more than 200 milligrams per day. Be careful of herbal teas because many contain medicinal effects. Mint and ginger teas, however, are safe and may help ease some of the digestive woes brought about during pregnancy.
All alcohol: No amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy is considered safe.
Nicotine: Cigarette smoke from direct or indirect sources is dangerous.
Medications, herbs, and supplements (especially vitamin A): Be sure to tell your obstetrician (OB) about every medication, herb, and supplement you’re on before pregnancy. Even over-the-counter medications, like painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and cough suppressants, may be harmful to your fetus. Discuss this in detail with your physician.
Artificial sweeteners: Use of any artificial sweeteners during pregnancy has not been proven safe.
Nitrites and nitrates: These cancer-causing compounds are found in processed (fake) meats, hot dogs, and bacon. Read the ingredient lists.
Fish, raw dairy, raw eggs, and soft cheeses: If you’re on a whole food, plant-based diet, you’re already avoiding these.
Nonfood items to avoid include radiation, hot tubs, saunas, cat litter, household cleaners, paint, and any other chemicals.
In addition, take these actions to support your body during pregnancy:
- Gain the right amount of weight—no more and no less.
- Be mindful and prudent regarding your nutrient intake.
- Continue your pre-pregnancy exercise program, but with appropriate modifications.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Pregnancy is a very special time in your life when taking proper care of yourself is more crucial than ever.
- Prioritize your health, and both you and your baby will reap the benefits.
Gaining Weight Wisely
The extra calories needed during pregnancy go toward creating new tissue in the fetus, placenta, uterus, and breasts, as well as making amniotic fluid and blood. But contrary to popular belief, your calorie needs aren’t greatly increased during pregnancy.
Gaining the right amount of weight creates an ideal condition for both you and your baby. Not gaining enough can lead to poor growth or nutrient deficiencies for your baby. On the other hand, gaining too much weight puts you at risk for gestational diabetes (GDM), more discomfort during pregnancy, and a difficult time losing the extra weight after delivery.
Gestational diabetes (GDM) is any degree of glucose intolerance that’s first discovered during pregnancy. Although the condition usually resolves after delivery, GDM increases your risk by more than 7-fold of developing type 2 diabetes 5 to 10 years after your pregnancy. Children of moms with GDM are at increased risk of obesity, glucose intolerance, and diabetes in late adolescence and young adulthood. GDM complicates up to 9 percent of pregnancies, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Calorie needs increase throughout the trimesters. During your first trimester, you don’t need to increase calories. This is the time to find ways of consuming adequate amounts of the vital nutrients despite nausea and fatigue. When your second trimester begins, increase your intake by approximately 340 calories per day. During this period, you should be adjusting to pregnancy. Typically, nausea and fatigue subside before any discomfort from weight gain begins, allowing you to eat more nutrient-dense meals. Use the slightly elevated caloric needs to take in more vegetables and fruits. When you reach your third trimester, your baby’s weight gain occurs more rapidly. Add about 452 more calories a day to your diet to support his or her growth.
As you can see, the numbers aren’t that large. One cup of brown rice with a cup of steamed broccoli and an apple makes up 340 calories. Of course, when you’re pregnant with more than one baby, your calorie needs are slightly higher. Ideally, you’ll only gain 2 to 4 pounds during the first trimester and then between 1 and 11⁄2 pounds per week for the remaining trimesters. Ultimately, how much weight you should gain depends on your prepregnancy weight, your age, and the number of babies you’re carrying.
Necessary Nutrients During Pregnancy
Unlike calories and weight gain recommendations, nutrient demands amplify greatly during pregnancy. Your body takes some nutrients directly out of its own storage; others you need to consume regularly from your diet. To prevent deficiency in both yourself and your baby, be sure to emphasize the following nutrients:
- Vitamins A, C, B6, and B12
Protein needs increase during the second and third trimesters to support tissue and fluid production. You need to consume approximately 25 grams more protein per day at this time (50 grams if you’re carrying twins). Nutrient-rich sources include beans, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds.
Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for fetal brain development. The fetus takes in approximately 50 to 60 milligrams (mostly from DHA) during the last trimester. Maintain your stores of DHA by consuming walnuts, flaxseeds, hempseeds, chia seeds, and whole soy foods daily, and consider supplementing with an EPA and DHA microalgal supplement.
In Chinese medicine, daily intake of walnuts is recommended during pregnancy because a walnut looks like the brain. Coincidentally, walnuts are filled with alpha-linolenic acid—the type that converts to the brain-building DHA.
Many women become iron-deficient for the first time during pregnancy. Iron needs at this time are nearly double what they are normally; you require 27 milligrams per day during pregnancy, as opposed to the usual 15 milligrams. All the extra blood essential for you and your baby increases your need to build hemoglobin. Emphasize iron-rich foods like your go-to leafy greens, making sure to eat them with a vitamin C–rich source, like tomatoes or citrus fruit.
However, achieving the RDA might not always be possible; supplementing might be necessary temporarily. Iron-deficiency anemia in pregnancy can lead to premature deliveries and low-birth-weight infants. Deficiency almost always resolves after delivery, especially because women typically go several months without a menstrual cycle postpregnancy. This allows the body time to restore iron levels to normal.
If you must take a supplement based on your obstetrician’s recommendations, drink plenty of water and eat extra fiber to compensate for the constipating effects of concentrated iron. Also, take the iron supplements between meals and separate from tea, coffee, calcium supplements, fortified foods, and legumes.
Folic acid supplements, or prenatal vitamins containing folic acid, are given to women preventively if they’re even thinking about becoming pregnant. Adequate amounts of folic acid are essential in the first few weeks of pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects, typically the time before a woman discovers she’s pregnant.
Before, we explained how folic acid supplements are harmful. However, if you’re adamant about consuming your greens and beans every day, you’ll never have to worry about having enough folate. A cup each of raw greens, cooked greens, and lentils eaten in a day provides more than enough folate to meet your daily requirement.
Exercise During Pregnancy
Your body changes in more ways than you can predict during a pregnancy, regardless of how many times you’ve been through it. Structural changes occur to allow the baby to grow, expand, and, ultimately, come out to meet you. Hormones are released to enable these changes, helping relax your joints, mobilize your bones, and generally open up. The more in tune you are with your body going into pregnancy, the more control you can exert over how you handle these changes.
Being fit from the get-go is a huge advantage. You’re able to continue exercising, reaping the multitude of benefits that come from maintaining your fitness level throughout pregnancy, including the following:
- Improved circulation
- Weight management before and after pregnancy
- Energy maintenance
- Better sleep quality
- Minimized joint discomfort from weight gain
- Ability to maintain endurance, strength, and flexibility
- Easier delivery
- Improved recovery postdelivery
Still, you must tailor how you work out to your pregnancy. During the first trimester, you can pretty much maintain what you were doing prepregnancy. Of course, at this time, most women are bogged down by major fatigue and nausea, thanks to the dramatic hormonal shifts. So listen to your body, and of course, speak with your OB about what you’re currently doing. Move your body as much as is comfortably possible.
Pregnancy is not the time to work on strengthening your abdominal (stomach) muscles. Not only does it put strain on your womb, but you don’t want those muscles to be shortened and tight. Your abdominal cavity needs to expand at this time to allow room for the baby. Instead, focus your strengthening efforts on your back, arms, and legs. You’ll have plenty of time to regain your ab muscles postdelivery, once you get the go-ahead from your OB.
During the second trimester, you should begin to ease out of the fatigue and nausea before experiencing the discomfort of carrying around extra weight—in a very awkward place on your body with respect to gravity. This is the perfect time to move more. Walking and using an elliptical, stationary bicycle, or step mill are great ways to get in your cardio. Running is not ideal because jumping may be jarring on your baby and your own body. Running also puts you at higher risk of falling because your center of gravity has shifted.
Lifting light to moderate weights is excellent to maintain muscle mass. Just be extremely careful with your form. It’s easier to sustain an injury because your joints are abnormally relaxed. Don’t try to lift weights heavier than you did before pregnancy; it may be best to do lighter-weight, higher-rep workouts. Hit all your major muscle groups at least a couple times a week.
Stretching should feel fabulous at this point. You may be able to stretch farther than ever before in your life—even as a child! Just be gentle, and don’t force anything. But working on your flexibility (especially in your hips) may help with delivery.
It’s important to remember during exercise that after 20 weeks gestation you should refrain from lying on your back because this can interfere with blood flow to your baby and the placenta. Plenty of exercises can be performed in an incline position. Use a workout bench or firm pillow to raise your head, shoulders, and back to a good angle that will protect your baby and enable you to hit muscle groups like your chest.
During your final trimester, everything changes. This is the time when your weight gain is the greatest. You may slow down and feel achy or uncomfortable. If you can, continue some form of movement. Swimming is perfect because it provides that feeling of weightlessness and gives you an opportunity for relief while getting your heart rate up.
Women may experience pregnancy in their own individual way, depending on many variables. (Julieanna recalls a woman who at 9 months pregnant was doing headstands in her yoga class.) At the other extreme, those who gain a lot of weight can barely move around through their day. Multiples pregnancies (twins or more) add extra stress to the body and should be monitored closely.
Your goal during the last few weeks is to stay comfortable, maintain movement as much as possible, and listen to your doctor’s orders. Preterm labor can have potential health implications for your baby, so you want to be sure he or she is fully “cooked” before coming out. Intense exercise has the potential to increase contractions, and you don’t want to push yourself into early labor just to keep up with your routine.
If exercising brings on contractions, pain, or bleeding, stop your activity and call your OB immediately.
Walking usually feels good and improves circulation for you and your baby. Lifting light weights also enhances blood flow and helps maintain strength and functionality. Gentle stretching may help open your joints and relieve tension. During this time, be sure to get plenty of rest. Take special care of your body, and listen to its signals closely. Before you know it, you’ll be holding your little one, finally having that opportunity to see who has been growing inside of you.
Postpregnancy is a great time to ease your way back into your old routine after your OB grants approval. Remember that your body has undergone major construction and deconstruction, and it may take a while to get your stamina back. Your fitness level postpregnancy depends on how fit you were beforehand. Take it one workout at a time, and your endurance, strength, and flexibility will return to normal along with your weight. Remember that it took 9 months to gain the weight, and it takes about the same amount of time, on average, to take it off. Stay consistent, and you’ll see results.
Tips to Nip Nausea and Other Discomforts
The power of hormones becomes ragingly obvious the moment you become pregnant. Initially, your body surges with estrogen, progesterone, and human chorianic gonadotropin (HCG)— hormones that help maintain the pregnancy. This hormonal influx causes the feeling of nausea and sometimes vomiting. Some strategies help alleviate these symptoms.
Nausea is greater when your stomach is empty. This explains why it’s typically called morning sickness, although the nausea can, and usually does, occur throughout the day. You wake up with no food in your stomach after an overnight fast. Eating small, regular meals throughout the day helps moderate this feeling. To help break the fast, you can keep crackers by your bedside to eat the moment you wake up.
You may notice that bland, starchy, and salty foods are the easiest to tolerate. A risky consequence of nausea is the inability to consume a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods. Do the best you can. Take advantage of less-nauseous times of the day to eat as many micronutrient-rich foods as you can find (greens, legumes, veggies, fruits, nuts, and seeds).
Also, keep the following in mind:
- Soups and cooked vegetables may be easier to tolerate than raw veggies.
- Whole-grain crackers provide more nutrients than white crackers.
- To stave off nausea, sip ginger tea or chew on ginger candy.
- Try sipping carbonated water.
- Continue drinking liquids to prevent dehydration, especially if you’re vomiting.
- See your OB if you’re unable to keep down any food or liquids.
Ginger root is one of the very few herbs considered safe during pregnancy. It’s helpful in alleviating nausea. Boil fresh ginger root in hot water for a delicious tea, buy 100 percent ginger tea bags at the store, or chew on ginger candies when you feel nauseous.
Another source of discomfort that comes with pregnancy is heartburn. Heartburn is the symptom that coincides with stomach acid being released into the esophagus. Pregnancy-induced spikes in progesterone relax the esophageal sphincter, and the uterus puts pressure on the stomach increasing the likelihood of heartburn. To help ease the discomfort, follow these tips:
- Eat your meals slowly.
- Avoid getting too full by eating small frequent meals throughout the day.
- Stay upright for at least a couple hours after you eat so the food has time to pass through your upper GI tract.
- Avoid acidic foods or those high in fats.
Constipation is another very common occurrence during pregnancy. A number of factors can contribute to the issue. It’s partly those darn hormones again. Progesterone decreases muscle contractions, which slows down the movement in the intestines. A growing fetus takes up space and can interfere with normal bowel movements, too. If you’re taking iron supplements, you have yet another variable keeping you stopped up.
Be sure to eat lots of fiber (impossible not to do on a whole food, plant-based diet) and drink plenty of water. Exercise also helps.
Plantlings: Raising Healthy Babies
Congratulations! After those long, intense, challenging, and sometimes uncomfortable 40 weeks, you finally get to meet and hold your baby. As you gaze into his or her eyes, you may be thinking, so now what?
You have the power to provide your baby with one of the greatest gifts a mother could ever give her child—superior nutrition for lifelong health! Diet in the first decade of a child’s life is more significant than all the remaining years of his or her life. Massive growth occurs during these years, and cells divide at a rapid pace. This is a period of great opportunity to provide your child’s cells with optimal nourishment. And a nutrient-dense diet lays the groundwork for powerful immunity and a healthy future.
Breast is Best
The very first decision you make after your baby is born (if you didn’t decide before the birth) is whether you plan to breastfeed. Nothing is healthier for an infant than mother’s milk. It’s tailor-made for just your baby, complete with your immune system and nutrients from your plant-based diet. With a world of unique benefits, your breast milk …
Provides antibodies that form the basis of your baby’s immune system.
Supports brain development with optimal nutrient levels (including DHA).
Encourages good, health-promoting bacteria to form in your baby’s intestinal tract.
Offers passive immunity to protect your baby from infections until he or she develops his or her own immune system.
Passive immunity is temporary protection against disease gained when one human gives already-made antibodies to another via breast milk.
Sustains long-term health advantages, such as reducing risk of allergies, ear infections, both types of diabetes, multiple sclerosis, childhood cancers, Crohn’s disease, overweight/obesity, and many other health problems.
Gives a cost-effective alternative to formula—it’s free!
Is convenient—it’s always ready to eat!
Promotes easier postpartum weight loss for you.
Decreases your risk of premenopausal breast cancer.
The most critical moment of breastfeeding is immediately after your milk comes in. Colostrum, the first milk to be secreted after your baby is born, is liquid gold. It’s rich in antibodies that coat your baby’s intestinal tract, setting up the immunity foundation.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breast milk as the sole source of food for the baby’s first 6 months and then a combination of breast milk and supplemental foods for the rest of the first year. Some experts recommend breastfeeding through the age of 2, although all the health benefits have been bestowed after 1 year. Ultimately, the more breast milk you offer your baby, the better. Continue for as long as you can up until the age of 2.
Some women are unable to breastfeed due to physical or other obstacles. If this is the case, available plant-based infant formulas are fortified with all necessary nutrients. Be certain to choose one with added EPA and DHA.
Nutrify Your Breast Milk
Your breast milk is a direct reflection of what you eat. Nutrient content and toxin concentration change based on food consumption. This puts you in the driver’s seat; you can maximize nutrition in your baby the entire time you breastfeed. Breast milk from strict plant-eaters is adequate in nutrients as long as you’re actively taking a vitamin B12 supplement.
To boost the nutrition level of your breast milk, eat a wide variety of plants. Also avoid all chemicals in your food, drinks, and everyday life. Remember, if you wouldn’t give it directly to your baby, don’t expose yourself to it either. Stick to the goal of eating high on the nutrient-density continuum by basing your meals on greens, beans, other vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Consume at least two sources of omega-3 fatty acids—walnuts, hempseeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and whole soy products—every day and consider taking a microalgae EPA/DHA supplement.
Not only are you kick-starting your baby’s health, but you’re also introducing tastes to your baby’s pure palate. Odds are, if you love your greens and eat them daily during breastfeeding, your baby will, too. What a great way to start life!
The First Year: Nutrition No-No’s
During the first year or two of life, certain foods should be avoided. No type of milk other than breast milk or baby formula is safe for your baby until after 1 year of age. This includes all types of dairy and plant-based milks.
Allergies and colic can show up in the form of gastrointestinal symptoms, rashes, or persistent crying. If you, the baby’s father, or his or her siblings have a history of severe food allergies, monitor your baby carefully while breastfeeding and note any new foods you have eaten recently that may have caused a reaction in your baby.
To ease colic, consider eliminating from your diet foods that may cause discomfort to your baby, such as coffee, chocolate, onions, and cruciferous vegetables, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
During the first year, it’s dangerous to give your baby honey or corn syrup because babies are more vulnerable to botulism. Also, never put anything in a bottle besides breast milk, formula, or water. Nourish your baby with your milk or formula for those first few months until he or she is ready to begin the culinary journey.
Alcohol passes into breast milk when you drink it. Information is lacking about how much of the alcohol goes into the milk and how long it takes to be metabolized, but know that exposure to alcohol can be detrimental to your baby’s development. To be safe, drink no more than one or two servings of alcohol per week while nursing.
When your baby starts to show signs that he or she is ready—usually at 4 to 6 months of age—it’s time to expose your baby’s palate to solid foods. (Signs of readiness to start solids include the ability to sit upright and the disappearance of the tongue extrusion reflex. Your baby may also appear curious or interested when watching you eat.)
Supplementing food displaces some of the calories that come from the milk or formula. This is one reason to wait as close to 6 months as possible. Remembering that babies have different nutrient needs, the milk or formula needs to remain the priority of the diet. Think of the solids as accessories and as eating practice.
The first taste adventure to offer is iron-enriched infant cereal. Rice cereal is the best tolerated. Mix in the milk or formula to dilute it at first until your little one develops his or her techniques. Be patient—it takes time to learn how to swallow different textures.
After your baby can take in between 1⁄3 and 1⁄2 cup cereal, you can begin adding other foods. Keep it to other cereals, fruits, and vegetables for the next few months. Always wait 3 or 4 days after starting one food to introduce a new one so you can monitor for allergies.
Depending on your motivation and your resources, you can make these foods at home, or you can purchase them. Brown rice, oats, and barley can be ground in a blender until very fine and then boiled in water briefly until cooked. Bananas, cooked sweet potatoes, steamed carrots, and avocados can easily be mashed. You can also use pure applesauce, steamed green beans, cooked lentils, and stewed pears.
Use this time to perk up your baby’s tastes and preferences. If you start him or her eating close to nature now, you’ll provide the best foreground for optimal health in the future.
The Least You Need to Know
- Your diet before conception and through breastfeeding largely impacts your baby’s future health.
- During pregnancy, gain the recommended weight to prevent strain on you and your baby.
- Stay consistent with whole-plant foods throughout your pregnancy, and include food and supplemental sources of EPA and DHA, a vitamin B12 supplement, and vitamin D and iron if you’re deficient.
- You can continue to exercise during pregnancy with a few modifications, as long as you stay tuned in to your body’s signals.
- Breastfeeding provides significant health benefits to both you and your baby.
- Solid foods should be slowly and methodically introduced to your little one after the age of 4 to 6 months.