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You CAN be pregnant and vegan

“How do you get your protein?” is one of the most common questions a vegan (who doesn’t consume any animal products such as meat, dairy or eggs) gets—especially when a vegan is pregnant.

Eileen Wieder Crone, a registered dietician from Lititz, said being vegan during a pregnancy can be difficult when friends and family don’t understand the diet. “People are picking at you all the time, asking ‘where do you get your protein, where do you get your calcium,’” said Crone, a mother and a longtime vegan.

Even doctors can be leery of having a pregnant patient say they skip meat and dairy, said Lesley Sweeney, an OB/GYN with York Women’s Health Center at York Hospital. “They think it’s a weird new-age thing,” Sweeney said.

But Crone, Sweeney and other health professionals said being vegan or vegetarian should have no negative impact on the baby as long as it’s done the right way.

The wrong way, they said, is having a “horrible diet” that’s technically vegan but is all junk food. Sweeney recalled patients who seemed to live on Twinkies, soda and other junk food—nothing that would give their baby the nutrients he or she needs.

Be bold

Sweeney said she and other doctors at York Hospital don’t often hear pregnant women in York say they are vegan, although she thinks some women might be afraid to mention it to their doctor, fearing the OB/GYN will talk them out of it.

Serdar Ural, chief of Maternal-Fetal Medicine with Penn State Milton Hershey Medical Center, estimates 5 percent of pregnant patients at Hershey Medical Center are vegan. There aren’t statistics available nationally on pregnancy and veganism, but overall, about 0.5 percent, or 1 million people, identified themselves as vegan in a 2012 Harris poll, and about 3 percent, or about 6 million people, said they are vegan in a 2012 Gallup poll.

“If they are vegan and eating adequately, taking supplements, they overall do fine,” Ural said, adding that any healthy and well-balanced diet is a smart move for pregnant women.

It’s not a smart move to hide facts about your diet, Sweeney said, since doctors can’t properly care for a patient if they don’t know what their diet is like. If the doctor isn’t familiar enough with veganism, they can always recommend you visit a dietician.

Be balanced

Ural said a balanced vegan diet tends to help avoid nutritional-related pregnancy issues compared to some other diets. But it’s not without pitfalls if not properly monitored.

He advises vegan or vegetarian pregnant patients to be particularly aware they are getting adequate vitamins and minerals that aren’t as easily attainable without animal products.

Without a balanced diet, there are health dangers a vegan pregnant patient can face that women are encouraged to talk to their doctor about, Sweeney and Ural said. Those dangers can include conditions such as pre-eclampsia, low birth weight and iron deficiency.

Ultrasounds can help make sure the baby is gaining weight properly. And taking prenatal vitamins, already a pregnancy standard, is even more important for vegans as they can plug in some holes on the nutritional spectrum, doctors said.

Ural said some vegans or vegetarians may feel a craving to eat meat during pregnancy. That’s the body telling you it needs more iron, he said, so consuming an alternative source can curb the craving.

Don’t let friends or family tell you being a vegan is impossible during pregnancy, said Sweeney, who said she often had vegan patients while working in Georgia.

Some of the things pregnant women are advised to avoid, such as raw fish, are already things vegans don’t eat, so that’s a side bonus, she said.

And as for that “Where do you get your protein?” question, doctors said a complete vegan diet, which gets protein from staples such as nuts and tofu, should cover the protein intake with no problem.

“Nowadays, it’s not that hard if you know what you’re doing,” Sweeney said.

The Fetal 5

  • Iron: Since the baby creates the need for more blood, iron intake has to be increased. Usually found in meat, vegans can get it from lentils, beans, spinach and nuts. Vegetarians can get it from eggs.
  • B12: Prenatal vitamins contain this vitamin, crucial to preventing anemia and certain infections.
  • Calcium: Calcium deficiency is common during any pregnancy. While vegetarians can still get calcium from animal-based milk, vegans can get it from collard greens, figs, mustard greens, hummus,  and fortified tofu, orange juice, and soy milk.
  • Folic acid: It’s key to preventing neural tube defects. Many cereals contain folic acid, as do chick peas, leafy greens and black beans.
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D isn’t usually found in plant foods, Crone said. But direct sunlight can supply Vitamin D, as can some fortified almond and soy milks.

The American Dietitic Association, which also supports women remaining vegan pregnancy, also recommends vegans and vegetarians make sure they find sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, usually found in fish, to help support fetal brain and nervous system development. Flax seed oil and other non-fish-based Omega 3 sources are available as supplements.

Andrew Shaw is a freelance writer, comedian and father-to-be from York who already wears cardigans like an old man.

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