Vegan Pregnancy Q & A

February 11, 2014

Very informative interview by Alicia Silverstone with experts she trusts…including me.

What kind of formula should a vegan baby drink?
Christina: Well, first, I have to say that the best food for babies is breast milk. In the rare instance that a mother cannot nurse, then a formula can be used. There is a lot of controversy around soy and the isoflavones that include phytoestrogen. Somehow, it has been put out there that phytoestrogens are the same as estrogen – but they’re not at all the same. Unlike estrogen, phytoestrogens are plant-based. They just behave in the same manner as estrogen receptor cells, which regulate levels of estrogen in a woman’s body. That said, the soy formula I have found to be the most natural – without simple sugars, additives, GMOs, antibiotics or other questionable ingredients – is Baby’s Only Organic sweetened with brown rice syrup.

Susan: Soy-based formulas are the best option for a non-breast feeding baby. Human breast milk is unique and not mimicked by anything else in nature, so grocery-store brands of soy, rice, cow’s milk by themselves are not substitutes for formula.

Is soy bad for a pregnancy, and while breastfeeding?
Christina: No. Even if a baby is shown to be sensitive to soy, nothing seems to come through in the mother’s milk, so there is no worry. While the baby gets all the nutrients the mother consumes, experts say that if a baby has food sensitivities, that does not mean the mother cannot enjoy the foods the baby is sensitive to. The baby gets the nutrients, but usually does not show signs of distress from the sensitivity. And, usually, an infant’s sensitivity to soy is not something they are born with; often the mother has one, too. We say that the mom should eat normally and see if there is a negative reaction in her infant, like excessive fussiness, indigestion, crying…it will not usually be severe. In fact, studies have shown that mothers eating traditionally-produced organic soy, like tofu, tempeh, shoyu and miso, are more relaxed and as a result, so are the babies.

Susan: Soy products are safe and may even have health advantages. In fact, research has shown that the earlier people consume soy in life, the greater the health advantages. So sharing your love of soy with your children may be a priceless gift. Soy is not essential, but it does reduce cancer risk later in life. Additionally, protein needs go up during pregnancy and lactation, and soy is a great high-protein source. Emphasize whole soy foods such as miso, tempeh, tofu, soy milk, and of course the whole soy bean (edamame).

Christina: People are freaked out by soy because they have been told to be freaked out. The truth is that traditional soy can help women with so many things, from PMS to hot flashes associated with menopause; to reducing breast cancer risk; to reducing muscle tension in the legs. On the other hand, any soy products with soy isolates or isolated soy protein should be avoided, because the way they’re processed makes them unhealthy.

Are soy formulas safe? If so, which one should a mother feed her baby?
Christina: Many soy formulas are loaded with sugar and are not made from organic soybeans, so you could be getting GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and other additives. Again, the only one I have found to be free of all that jazz is Baby’s Only Organic.

Susan: Yes, soy formulas are safe. According to published research, there does not seem to be any difference in outcome between babies who drank soy and cow’s milk formulas. Dr. Spock himself felt soy formula did have advantages over cow’s milk formula because of cow milk’s link to various diseases such as type 1 diabetes, lactose intolerance, and dairy allergies.

In the 8th Edition of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, it states, “cow’s milk itself … is not safe for infants. The protein and sugar mix is wrong, and infants fed straight cow’s milk are likely to become seriously ill.”

How can a vegan, pregnant woman increase her protein without going overboard on soy?
Susan: Don’t sweat the protein issue. If you consume adequate calories, your protein needs will be met. When you eat more calories during pregnancy, you naturally consume more protein as well. It takes care of itself! Remember, protein is found in whole grains, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Yes, even broccoli gets 1/3 of its calories from protein!

Christina: There is no need to go crazy with protein because you’re pregnant. There is protein in everything we eat, except fruit. Women should get their protein from beans, soy foods (traditional, again, no isolated soy), seitan and grains like quinoa and amaranth, which contain the same levels of protein and structure as an egg, and a daily serving of nuts. A vegan woman need not go nuts with soy to get what she needs. I usually recommend people eat tofu once a week and enjoy fermented soy more often: twice a week for tempeh, daily for miso. Fermented soy is easy on digestion, so people have fewer difficulties with it.

Are prenatal vitamins vegan?
Christina: Not all of them, but there are brands that are. I have seen women have good results with Deva vegan prenatal multivitamins. Both Mega and Rainbow Light brands of prenatal vitamins are also of the highest quality and have worked hard to not contribute to the upset stomachs that so many pregnant women deal with. These vitamins have all the nutrients needed and are designed to get to the cells more efficiently.

Would a woman who is vegan during pregnancy need to take more supplements than a non-vegan pregnant woman?
Susan: The needs are the same between vegan and non-vegan pregnant women with the exception of iron. The prenatal vitamin takes care of most of the iron needs during pregnancy. Because vegans do not get their iron from meat, it is advisable to focus on plant sources of iron such as whole grains, beans, spinach, chard, dried fruits, and beets. You can increase the absorbability of dietary iron by pairing iron foods with high Vitamin C foods.

Christina: Dark leafy greens like kale, collards, and bok choy are a great sources of iron in our diets. Broccoli, whole wheat, black turtle beans, escarole, watercress, dandelion greens, and lentils are all great sources of iron as well. Try to limit spinach and Swiss chard, as they contain high levels of oxalic acid, which inhibits absorption of calcium and iron.

Iodine, like that found in kombu or iodized sea salt is important during pregnancy and breast feeding because iodine deficiency is the cause of the most preventable form of brain damage in newborns. It’s been my experience that most macrobiotic women who do not eat fish are deficient in iodine – but getting enough is as simple as using iodized sea salt or taking a kelp supplement.

Are there solid facts that state that a vegan pregnancy is healthier than a non-vegan pregnancy?
Christina: According to and, a vegan pregnancy can be just as healthy and nutritionally adequate as any other. Experts like Dr. Neal Barnard will take it a step further and tell you that a properly nourished vegan woman will be healthier during pregnancy and not struggle as much with digestive issues, bloating, swelling of the feet, insomnia and all the other things that plague women during this special time.

Susan: In a 1987 study of 1,700 pregnancies at a vegan community in Tennessee, pregnancies were dramatically healthier. And only one in 100 babies had to be delivered by cesarean section, compared with much higher rates in the general population.

Alicia: All of the vegan pregnancies I have witnessed have been way smoother than those of my non-vegan friends. My friends Heather, Laura, Lalayna, Desire, and “Macro-Mom” Sarah Forrester Wendt did not have to worry about all the medications and interventions that our society has come to consider normal. From my point of view, the more vegan you are, the healthier you are – and that makes your pregnancy go more easily and helps your baby to be super-duper healthy!

Will eating vegan increase the risk of the baby developing certain allergies later in life?
Susan: A vegan diet offers increased intake of immune boosting foods to help protect against chronic health problems.

Christina: As long as the mother is getting adequate amounts of zinc in her diet or as a supplement, there is no concern. Zinc is essential to health. It doesn’t prevent allergies directly, but having a balanced concentration of zinc in the body results in a strong immune function that often is the key in allergy prevention and treatment. Zinc can be found in foods like whole wheat and nuts.

If a mother is vegan, will there be enough nutrients in her breast milk?
Susan: Yes. But first, it’s important to note what her child will not be getting. Mothers who are not yet vegan have more chemical pollutants in their breast milk, compared with vegan mothers. Having said that, it is always important to ensure complete nutrition. Women need more Vitamin B-12 during pregnancy and lactation. For vegan moms, it is important to continue B-12 supplementation throughout all stages of the lifecycle.

Vegan mothers should make sure they have a reliable source of Vitamin D (sun exposure, fortified foods, or talk to a healthcare provider about supplementation) and iodine (iodized salt does the trick) in the mother’s diet while breastfeeding as well.

Will a pregnant woman, or woman who is breastfeeding, get enough calcium if she is vegan?
Susan: Yes, calcium needs are easily met when consuming plant foods. Leafy green vegetables have the most absorbable form of calcium (kale, collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts). Beans are a good choice. Supplemented beverages such as soy milk and rice milk can be part of a healthful diet as well.

Does a vegan baby get enough good fat?
Christina: They can if the mother is eating enough fat while nursing and once the baby moves to solid food. Foods like avocado, tofu, oils, oats, pureed cooked nuts and seeds in food (as long as there are no allergies) are good sources of fat for babies.

Susan: Yes. A vegan baby gets everything the mother consumes. If the mother is eating a good ratio of essential fatty acids and avoiding the less desirable fats, the baby will reap the benefits. If the mother is consuming a typical high-fat American diet, then the baby will be at a disadvantage.

Are there advantages to raising kids on vegan diets?
Susan: You are doing your kids a huge favor by starting them off on the right dietary path. Building meals from vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits will help them to stay slim, and as research shows more and more, help them stay healthy for life.

When children have healthful, vegan eating habits right from the start, they will learn to maintain vitamin and fiber-rich, cholesterol-free eating style throughout their lives.

Will a vegan child get enough Vitamin B-12?
Susan: Yes, easily. So long as the mother takes a reliable source of B-12, then a breast-feeding child will get enough B-12. Anybody who consumes a vegan diet will need to take a reliable B-12 source. This is easily done either via fortified foods or supplements, such as any typical multiple vitamin.

Christina: For Vitamin B-12, both the sublingual tablets and the shots are effective. The difference is with the sublingual, you need to take the supplement daily, and with the shots, you have an immediate reaction – fabulous energy! Most people will not need another shot for several weeks or months. I like both the shots and the sublingual, but for most people, the sublingual is enough (anywhere from 500-1500 mcg daily).

Is there a difference between raising girls vegan versus raising boys vegan?
Susan: There are no major differences between raising vegan boys and girls. Nutrient needs for the whole family are easily met by providing a varied plant-based diet. Vegan children, in general, tend to consume more protective foods such as fiber, iron, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins A and C, compared with non-vegetarians. They also eat fewer sweets and more fruits and vegetables!

What kind of vegan-friendly lotion helps with stretch marks?
Christina: There is a product called Organic Beauty Breast Cream that says it can prevent and can even help repair existing stretch marks…I have not used it, but it comes highly recommended. On the other hand, I have had experience with pure hemp seed oil and it does an amazing job or preventing and helping to repair stretch marks…and the cool thing is that it’s so high in omega 3 that is soaks right into the skin and doesn’t leave you oily…

Alicia: If you are pregnant or are planning to get pregnant, I highly recommend reading Dr. Holly Roberts’ book Your Vegetarian Pregnancy. She has thirty years of experience as an obstetrician and a vegetarian. In her book, she covers the details of nutrition for vegetarian, vegan, and macrobiotic diets for pregnant women. She also discusses the experience of pregnancy month by month – it’s a must-read!

Alicia Silverstone is author of The Kind Diet and you can catch up with her on all things vegan on her site, The Kind Life.