This post is about what my experience as a plant-forward woman has been during the first 4 months of pregnancy. It's just my honest experience. No filter.
Before you ask, no that's not me. It's how I envision myself if I were able to take cute photos like this during my pregnancy haha. But being due in May means that by the time I'm that big, it will be brown and muddy here in Alberta.
However, I think pregnancy is very special (which I feel this photo captures) and has generally been wonderful for me aside from the odd symptoms that appear.
I am currently in my 17th week. As I check in with my body today, the main things I notice are a little back pain from the way I've been sleeping and a stuffy nose (apparently common after your second trimester begins). I also get an odd feeling of my abdominal muscles being strained every now and then from them slowly stretching out each week.
Over the last two weeks, I've noticed my appetite has really picked up as well. I went from eating less than I would pre-pregnancy in the first trimester to eating a little more than what I used to pre-pregnancy. The good news is that plants are appetizing again! But a little more on that later...
So, to share my first-trimester experience as a predominantly plant-eater I would probably have to tell you that I was not a predominantly plant-eater during the first trimester.
I remember vegetables being very hard to eat after about week 8. I also developed this fun dislike for anything I had already eaten once, especially if I found it unappealing the first time. I remember at some point I had made a marinara sauce with chard in it that was actually not very tasty at all. Add on top of it that the pasta I was trying to cook to go along with it was soft at first, but then got very chewy. After one failed attempt to eat this, I couldn't go near marinara sauce again until this week.
Most of what sounded good to me during the first trimester were eggs, toast, soymilk, ramen, bagels, frozen meals, takeout, chocolate, and LOTS of fruit. I remember pretty much snacking on fruit and not much else. A lot of times I would sit down to eat with my husband and have to push my plate of whatever over for him to finish while I got up to make myself something different.
Like I said, not the most healthy start to my pregnancy, but smells and tastes really do change during those first few months.
I remember thinking, "What is worse than for a Dietitian to not be able to eat." I mean, come on, food is kinda what I live for! I was woeful that I would ever recover my taste for sweet potatoes, vegetables, and tofu.
Then the second trimester began, and I no longer needed crackers first thing in the morning to settle my stomach.
Slowly, week by week my passion for plant-based eating returned. Vegetables tasted good! And I was starting to get so hungry that I wasn't picky about what I ate, I just needed food!
So like I said about 2-3 weeks ago my appetite picked up. ESPECIALLY at night. I'm not used to eating a lot around bedtime but I needed to eat before sleeping to ensure I wouldn't wake up hungry. My go-to night foods were bran cereal with raisins and soymilk (homemade raisin-bran), fruit (a usual), and some nuts or something I could find with protein in it.
There were multiple nights I would walk into the kitchen to drink some soymilk in the middle of the night because I couldn't sleep.
Around this time, I realized maybe I need to be more intentional about eating protein and adequate calories during the day so that I'm not waking up hungry. So this week, I've been more intentional about meal prepping some good snacks (chia pudding and tofu frittata) and finding food that sounds good to me so that I'm excited to fill up at dinnertime.
I also purchased some almonds to snack on before bed and keep at my bedside in case I wake up hungry (recommendation from my midwife). I also bought some greek yogurt (something I haven't eaten in a long time actually) to snack on before bedtime with some fruit and granola mixed in.
I went from eating eggs almost every day during my first-trimester to eating them very rarely now. From craving mostly junk food to craving nuts and tofu.
I found that with my renewed appetite came a renewed desire to eat as plant-based as I could for the sake of my little one. After all, research shows that a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet may not only be sufficient for pregnancy but actually prevent unwanted consequences in pregnancy (c-sections and pre-eclampsia) and help set up babes for a healthier life outside the womb (1).
If you are considering going plant-based for your pregnancy, here are the general recommendations to ensure that you meet your and the baby's nutrient needs. These are summarized from Brenda Davis' book Nourish, The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families (1).
Calories: It is true that you are eating for more than 1 person, just remember the size of that second person. During the first trimester, no extra calories are needed from your pre-pregnancy intake. During the second trimester, you can expect to need around an extra 340 calories a day, and during the third trimester around an extra 450 calories a day. Of course, these are dependent on your metabolism and activity level. These extra calories can usually be accomplished by adding another well-balanced snack per day.
Protein: Women on a plant-based diet may need to adjust for the low-digestibility of some high fiber plant-foods and therefore may need closer to an additional 28 grams per day (50 grams for twins). Not to fear! Intentionally eating protein with each meal and snack, choosing soy or pea milk over other kinds of plant-milks, eating beans or lentils 2 times a day, using soy in your diet, adding nuts and seeds and nut-butters to your meals and snacks, and adding protein-rich foods like tofu to your smoothies will provide adequate protein. No need for a protein powder that might have unwanted substances added to it anyway.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: You can consume some omega-3s through flax, chia, hemp seeds, and walnuts. But it is also advised for pregnant women who do not consume fish to supplement with 300 mg of DHA/EPA from a microalgae-based supplement.
Folate: It is easy to achieve recommended folate levels on a plant-based diet, but a prenatal vitamin also makes up for any potential gap and should be started before you even begin to try and conceive.
B12: Prenatal supplements may not contain enough B12 to be relied upon for pregnancy and therefore an additional supplement containing 1,000 mcg twice a week should be added. As with folate, this should be a routine supplement before even beginning to try to conceive.
Calcium: The recommendation is 1,000 mg/day which can be met with a variety of calcium-rich sources such as tofu (calcium-set), low-oxalate greens like kale and bok choy, fortified soymilk, chia seeds, and figs.
Vitamin D: Supplements are advised if you live where sun exposure is limited for several months of the year. The recommendation is 600 IU for pregnant women, but higher levels up to 2,000 IU may be recommended if vitamin D status is in question (have not supplemented and you live with little sun exposure or vitamin D fortified foods).
Choline: Choline is essential for cell division, gene expression, and in brain and nervous system development. Choose a pre-natal that includes at least 100 mg/day or supplement with a separate supplement on days where eggs are not consumed. Up to 900 mg/day may be safe in pregnancy.
Iron: Iron absorption can be enhanced by the intake of vitamin C rich foods (citrus, strawberries, red peppers) with meals. Also, avoiding inhibitors of iron absorption may help. For example, avoiding tea and coffee at meal-times and avoiding concentrated bran-cereals, and soaking/sprouting your grains. Select iron-rich choices like lentils, beans, nuts, and seeds and begin taking a low-dose iron supplement of 30 mg/day if not added to your prenatal supplement.
Iodine: The recommendation is 220 mcg during pregnancy. Check your prenatal and consume iodized salt over non-iodized salt. If you are a kelp or seeweed lover, read up on the risks of excess iodine in pregnancy.
Zinc: The recommendation is 11 mg during pregnancy. Ensure your prenatal contains zinc, and continue to eat rich sources like legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains.
Although I am not 100% vegan/plant-based, I trust that by exposing my little one to more fruits and vegetables in the womb I am doing them a great wealth of good. I also trust that my body will continue to be nourished by a well-planned plant-forward diet and that I am reducing my risks of some pregnancy complications with this way of eating.
Sure it takes a little more intentionality to ensure I am meeting our needs, but I think the benefits will be worth the little brain-ache I get when trying to figure out what protein-rich foods I should snack on.
For MUCH more detailed information, I recommend looking into the resources found at PlantBasedJuniors.com and a couple of the following resources:
Sharon Palmer: 5 Steps to a Balanced Plant-Based Pregnancy Diet https://sharonpalmer.com/5-steps-to-a-balanced-plant-based-pregnancy-diet/
The book Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families by Brenda Davis
Davis B, Shah R. Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families. Boca Raton, FL. Health Communications, Inc: 2020.