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Being Vegan or Plant Based has exploded in popularity over the last few years. Protein is of course an essential (and increased requirement) during pregnancy. We look at some of the things to consider if you are plant based/vegan and thinking of getting pregnant/are pregnant. We consider how much extra protein you need and most crucially the right ‘type’ of protein and ways to do this if you follow either one of these diets.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the best chance for a healthy conception, pregnancy and baby is to have a balanced body with adequate nutrition. Thankfully, for the most part, in the developed world, there are much fewer cases of outright ‘malnutrition’, however, we also know that there can also be more subtle imbalances within our bodies which we have to be vigilant for….
This is where – once again – knowledge can be power!
Being vegan has never been more ‘in Vogue’. For sure there are loads of benefits both environmentally and physically from this approach and we embrace every person’s individual choices. Even being predominantly plant-based minimises exposure to things like Dioxins (click here), saturated fats and also artificial hormones/steroids and other assorted nasties that can be part of modern agriculture. However, nothing in life is ‘for free’/perfect and this too potentially comes with its own downsides and things to watch for, particularly if you’re on the journey of trying to have/having a healthy small person.
The hard reality is that anytime you cut out significant sources of nutrition, it pays to be aware of the potential pitfalls. The first step is to know what you’re looking for and then options to work around it – going plant-based/vegan is no exception.
So what are the ‘potential pitfalls’? Well perhaps unsurprisingly it is all about Protein and most specifically getting enough of the ‘right’ type of protein:
Now, most people who are vegan or even plant based will of course know, and tell you, that you can get protein from other sources other than animal based sources which is of course entirely true. However, for the purposes of trying to have a healthy baby there two things to note and to bear in mind:
ONE: Having adequate amounts of the ‘right’ protein is super important for every aspect of life, but it is particularly important when you are trying to grow an entirely new person.
TWO: the ‘right’ type of protein: There is a difference between a ‘complete’ protein and an incomplete protein which is important to consider.
Here’s what you need to know:
Firstly, protein is crucial for growth of new tissue (for both a mother and the child). Why? Well for many things including the production of antibodies for immune defence, for production of hormones and enzymes, for transportation of oxygen in the blood and muscle development amongst many other things. We also know that successful pregnancy requires additional protein and that if you don’t get enough then it can lead to lower birth weights which are associated with all kinds of long term health conditions.
So, how much ‘extra’ is required?
As a starting point; The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) of protein for adults is 0.75g/kg bodyweight per day.
What is that in real life?!
Let’s take woman weighing 60 kg, they will need: 60 x 0.75g/d = so that is 45g protein a day.
What about if you’re pregnant? Don’t you need more?
Yes. On average the additional increase in required intake through pregnancy is 6g/day, however worth noting that less is required at the outset with more as the pregnancy progresses, in fact, the third trimester is when the most is required: approximately 10g/day is the estimate.
However, as above, it’s not just the quantity that matters: it’s also the type:
Here is your 101 in protein!
Proteins are made from building blocks called Amino Acids and they form chains together. They can be made in the body (known as non-essential proteins) and then we need some from diet (known as essential proteins).
Here is why a variety of the ‘right’ mix matters: different proteins provide different amino acids and this is where the ‘complete’ vs ‘incomplete’ sources make a difference.
Complete vs incomplete sources: what is the difference?
There are 20 different types of amino acid. A complete protein source is from foods that contain all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce itself. Incomplete proteins are those that are low in or lack one or more of the essential amino acids.
This is where those following plant-based/vegan diets need to be aware:
The reality is these incomplete proteins are usually found in plant foods which is why those who are plant based or vegan need to be mindful. The good news however is that as long as you are aware they can be mixed together to make a complete protein. The key is making sure you eat a broad range.
So, where do you find complete proteins?
As above, the majority (but not all) of the complete proteins are from animal sources, this includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. However, there are some sources of complete protein which are plant based – hooray! The ones to look for:
Spirulina (click here for much more on this one)
Whole sources of soy: tofu, edamame, tempeh and miso.
Of course there are other plant based sources of protein which are incomplete, the key is just to eat a variety of these to cover your bases. For example:
Grains, cereals, nuts or seeds can be eaten together with dried beans, dried peas, lentils, peanuts or peanut butter to make it a complete protein.
One other thing to note:
It is important to space out protein intake throughout the day as you can only absorb about 25-40 grams of protein per sitting.
To make life just a touch easier, if you are thinking of going plant based/vegan and are pregnant/want to be pregnant here are some of the stats to know about your choice of plant based protein (of course as always please consult your doctor before making any big changes especially if you are currently pregnant).
Quinoa contains 8 grams of protein per 1 cup of serving
Buckwheat contains 6 grams of protein per 1 cup of serving
Soy contains 10 grams per ½ cup in firm tofu, 15 grams per ½ cup serving in tempeh, 15 grams per ½ cup serving in natto
Mycoprotein (Quorn) contains 13 grams per ½ cup serving
Rice and beans contains 7 grams per 1 cup serving
Chia contains 2 grams per 1 tablespoon serving
Cooked lentils contain 8.84 g of protein per ½ cup.
Cooked chickpeas contain around 7.25 g per ½ cup
Almond contains 16.5 g of protein per ½ cup
Spirulina contain around 8 g of protein per 2 tablespoons
Chia seeds contain 2 g of protein per tablespoon
Hemp seeds offer 5 g of protein per tablespoon.
Potato offers 8 g of protein per serving
Dark coloured leafy vegetables contain protein:
A single, medium stalk of broccoli contains about 4 g of protein
Kale contains 2g of protein per cup
Bottom line: if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you can combine foods as below to ensure you consume adequate amounts of complete protein as part of a well-balanced diet: being vigilant is never going to be a negative here:
Nuts or seeds with whole grains (peanut butter on whole wheat toast)
Whole grains with beans (beans and rice; hummus and pita bread; bean-based chili and crackers; refried beans and tortillas)
Beans with nuts or seeds (salad with chickpeas and sunflower seeds)
For more: check out two resources we used:
1. NRC (National Research Council). 1989. Recommended Dietary Allowances, 10th ed. Report of the Subcommittee on the Tenth Edition of the RDAs, Food and Nutrition Board, Commission on Life Sciences. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 284 pp.
2. Gaull, G.E. 1983. Taurine in human milk: growth modulator of conditionally essential amino acid? J. Pediatr. Gastroenterol. Nutr. 2 :S266–S271.
3. Visek, W.J. 1986. Arginine needs, physiological state and usual diets. A reevaluation. J. Nutr. 116:36–46.
4. Hill, D.E. 1984. Experimental alteration of fetal growth in animals. Mead Johnson Symp. Perinat. Dev. Med. 23:29–36.
5. Elango R, Ball RO. Protein and Amino Acid Requirements during Pregnancy. AdvNutr 2016;7(Suppl):839S–44S; doi:10.3945/an.115.011817.
6. Battaglia, F.C. 1986. Placental transport and utilization of amino acids and carbohydrates. Fed. Proc., Fed. Am. Soc. Exp. Biol. 45:2508–2512.
7. Cetin, I., A.M. Marconi, P. Bozzetti, L.P. Sereni, C. Corbetta, G. Pardi, and F.C. Battaglia. 1988. Umbilical amino acid concentrations in appropriate and small for gestational age infants: a biochemical difference present in utero. Am. J. Obstet. Gynecol. 158:120–126.
8. Fitch, W.L., and J.C. King. 1987. Protein turnover and 3-methylhistidine excretion in nonpregnant, pregnant and gestational diabetic women. Hum. Nutr.: Clin. Nutr. 41C:327–339.
9. Hytten, F.E., and I. Leitch. 1971. The Physiology of Human Pregnancy, 2nd ed. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford. 599 pp.
10. British Nutrition Foundation. Nutrition requirements [Online]. 2015. Available at: www.nutrition.org.uk/attachments/article/234/Nutrition%20Requirements_Revised%20Nov%202015.pdf
11. British Nutrition Foundation. Protein [Online]. 2012. Available at: www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/nutrients/protein?start=4
12. Rush, D., N.L. Sloan, J. Leighton, J.M. Alvir, D.G. Horvitz, W.B. Seaver, G.C. Garbowski, S.S. Johnson, R.A. Kulka, M. Holt, J.W. Devore, J.T. Lynch, M.B. Woodside, and D.S. Shanklin. 1988. The National WIC Evaluation: evaluation of the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children. V. Longitudinal study of pregnant women. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 48:439–483.
13. Rush, D., A. Kristal, C. Navarro, P. Chauhan, W. Blanc, R. Naeye, and M.W. Susser. 1984. The effects of dietary supplementation during pregnancy on placental morphology, pathology, and histomorphometry. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 39:863–871
14. Ota E, Hori H, Mori R, Tobe-Gai R, Farrar D. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2015; Issue 6. Art. No.: CD000032. Antenatal dietary education and supplementation to increase energy and protein intake
15. NHS UK. Fish and shellfish [Online]. 2015. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/fish-shellfish.aspx
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.
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