We speak to a registered dietician about how a vegan diet might impact conception and pregnancy.
By Anna Bonet and Medically reviewed by Dr Louise Wiseman
If you’re a strict vegan and you’re trying to get pregnant, can a plant-based diet affect your chances of conception? We recently looked at the vegetarian diet and fertility and found that going meat-free is not generally a problem for conception. But with a more restrictive diet that cuts out all animal products, should vegans be concerned?
A vegan diet excludes meat, dairy products, eggs and honey but includes a wide variety of plant foods. While a vegan diet can certainly be a healthy one, it’s important to be mindful of what you choose to eat, especially if you’re trying to get pregnant.
We spoke to Sophie Medlin, Registered Dietitian and director of City Dietitians about the vegan diet, fertility and pregnancy:
Does being vegan affect fertility?
In short, following a vegan diet might have an impact on your chances of conception because essential nutrients that are important for fertility are harder to come by on a plant-based diet. However, research in this area is still limited and provided you ensure you do eat the right nutrients, you can overcome these obstacles.
‘There are certain nutrients that are harder to find on a vegan diet and many of these are associated with fertility,’ explains Medlin. ‘B vitamins, particularly B12 and folic acid are closely linked with fertility and are scarce on a vegan diet. Omega 3 from fish or algae is essential for conception and pregnancy and iodine is much harder to find on a vegan diet and is essential for conception.’
Can a vegan diet benefit fertility?
A plant-based diet tends to be a healthy one, and therefore going vegan could benefit fertility, as taking care of your health is one of the key factors for getting pregnant. It is now known that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, certain cancers and obesity. However, these health benefits may be more from consuming a broad range of fruits and vegetable, nuts, seeds and pulses rather than the removal of meat and other products from the diet.
There are certain nutrients that are harder to find on a vegan diet and many of these are associated with fertility.
The main concern with a vegan diet is that cutting out major food groups can put you at risk of vitamin deficiency, so meal planning is essential. This becomes even more important if you are trying to get pregnant and want to plan a healthy vegan pregnancy.
‘You may cut down on junk food and perhaps lose a bit of weight so that you’re in the healthy weight range on a vegan diet,’ says Medlin. ‘This may boost fertility initially but lower levels of essential vitamins could counteract the benefits.’
If you are proactive and ensure you source the nutrients found in animal products from other food sources or supplements, following a vegan diet shouldn’t be a problem.
Vegan diet and vitamin deficiency
Some experts believe that eschewing animal products could impact your chances of getting pregnant. ‘It can be much harder to conceive with low levels of the nutrients discussed,’ warns Medlin. ‘Lower levels of these nutrients have also been associated with problems with the development of babies brains.’
‘Healthcare professionals in Belgium have recently stated that a vegan diet isn’t safe for pregnant women or children, but this has led to controversy,’ she adds. Dietician organisations in different countries have different views on vegan diets but it seems that essentially a mindful vegan diet with careful planning can avoid deficiencies that could affect fertility or pregnancy.
How to have a healthy vegan pregnancy
When you are pregnant, it’s essential that you maintain a balanced diet throughout your pregnancy so that both mum and baby stay healthy. A recent study of vegan and vegetarian diets during pregnancy found that diet is one of the most significant lifestyle-related factors in determining your health, and a balanced diet is essential to avoid fetal complications.
See a registered dietitian for advice to ensure the diet is nutritionally adequate for the mother and the baby.
‘It is important to eat a varied diet and consume plenty of sources of protein,’ explains Medlin. ‘Supplementation is key and it would be advisable to see a registered dietitian for advice to ensure the diet is nutritionally adequate for the mother and the baby.’
Your doctor may suggest you supplement certain nutrients such as vitamin D, B12 and calcium. Maintaining a healthy weight and not being underweight also ensures better health outcomes for mum and baby. Staying active and listening to the needs of your body by increasing calorie intake from healthy foods is vital in all pregnancies.
What to eat for a healthy vegan pregnancy
To ensure good health for both mum and baby during the pregnancy and beyond, aim to include the following nutrients in your diet:
Protein intake needs to be increased in most pregnancies to cope with the demands of a growing baby. Legumes, soy, beans, nuts and tofu are good vegan sources.
Iron is essential to prevent iron deficiency anaemia. Iron from non meat sources is harder for the body to absorb, so the recommendations are to include iron fortified breads and cereals, beans, lentils, raisins and molasses in your diet, alongside vitamin C sources like tomatoes and citrus fruits to aid the absorption of iron.
- Folic acid
Folic acid during pregnancy is essential to prevent neural tube defects. All women are advised to supplement a 400 micrograms folic acid tablet every day before you’re pregnant and throughout the first trimester up until you’re 12 weeks pregnant.
- Vitamin D, choline and iodine
Vitamin D, choline and iodine are all needed for normal fetal growth and brain development. Vitamin D is part of the recommended prenatal and pregnancy supplements for all pregnancies. Vitamin D also contributes to bone health of the baby.
Choline is found in eggs and milk so vegans need to source it from other foods such as almonds, apple, banana, broccoli, sprouts, chickpeas and lentils.
Iodine is found mainly in meat, fish and dairy products, so vegans need to source it from other foods including wholegrains, green beans, courgettes, kale, spring greens, watercress, strawberries and organic potatoes with skin.
Calcium absorption naturally increases in pregnancy but you also need to include enough in your diet to promote bone health for both mum and baby. Calcium is found in soy products, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, dark leafy greens and seeds.
- Omega 3
Omega 3 benefits your baby’s health and development during pregnancy and is found in foods such as flax seeds, mungo beans and walnuts. A good balance of B vitamins and minerals such as zinc is needed to use these healthy fats well in the body.
- Vitamin B12
B12 is found in fortified cereals and soy products. If you are vegan it can be difficult to achieve a healthy B12 quota from nutrition alone, so you should consider taking supplements. Long term for all vegans B12 is important as deficiency can lead to neurological problems.