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Your pregnancy is bound to be one of the most exciting times of your life, but let’s face it: it’s also probably going to be one of the scariest as well.
There are a lot of changes going on in your body, including your increasing nutrition needs. As your baby grows, it will need plenty of necessary nutrients that it gets from you and your diet, which could mean that you may need to change your eating habits to accommodate it.
The issue is even more complicated if you’re plant-based. Following a vegan diet means that you need to pay extra-special attention to what you’re eating and the supplements you’re taking to ensure that you’re getting all the nutrients that you and your baby need.
The good news is that you don’t need to abandon your vegan diet to make sure both you and your baby are well-nourished. Here’s how to shop for the best prenatal vitamins for vegans.
Why you need a prenatal vitamin
As early as conception, fetuses require a ton of energy and nutrition to grow into babies. They get their nutrition from their mothers, who pass on the nutrients from their own diet to their babies by blood flow via the placenta.
During this earliest stage of a baby's growth and development in the womb, good nutrition from the mother is crucial. There's evidence that malnutrition in pregnant mothers can lead to various long-term health consequences for the baby that can affect them for years down the line.
So when you're "eating for two," your nutrition needs skyrocket. You have to ensure that you're eating enough of these essential nutrients to give your baby all the "tools" it needs to grow and develop properly.
Unfortunately, you might not get all of those essentials from food alone. Therefore, prenatal vitamins are crucial for most pregnant women to fully nourish their growing babies.
This is especially pertinent if you are a plant-based eater like a vegan or a vegetarian. Because you eliminate entire food groups like meat and dairy when you go vegan, you are more likely than omnivores to experience a nutrient deficiency. Many vegans must take dietary supplements to ensure they get all the nutrients they wouldn't otherwise be getting from food alone. So if you are both pregnant and plant-based, it’s doubly important to be taking a prenatal vitamin for vegans.
When to start taking a prenatal vitamin
The first month of pregnancy is critical for the baby since the brain and spinal cord start to develop. So the best time to start taking a prenatal vitamin is as soon as you start trying to conceive.
Sooner is probably even better: it’s often recommended that all women of reproductive age who can get pregnant start supplementing their diet with prenatal vitamins since that initial window of time is important for good fetal development.
If you miss that early period of time, you should start taking your prenatal vitamins as soon as you find out that you are pregnant.
What to look for in a prenatal vitamin
When searching for the right dietary supplements to support you and your baby during pregnancy, especially if you're following a specific eating plan like veganism, there are quite a few things to be on the lookout for. Here's what to keep in mind while you're shopping for plant-based prenatal vitamins.
All the right nutrients in the right forms.
There are several important nutrients that you'll probably need to increase your intake of when you become pregnant. Some essential vitamins and minerals your prenatal vitamins should include are:
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin B12
Some of these nutrients are going to be especially important if you're eating a vegan diet, like omega-3s, iron, and Vitamin B12. Because they aren't usually found frequently in plant-based foods, you'll almost definitely need to get them from your prenatal supplements instead.
It’s also important to note that not all vitamins are made alike, even if they fall under the same umbrella term. There are different forms of some vitamins, and the form present in your prenatal vitamin will also matter. For example, Vitamin B9 can be found in two other states: folate (the natural form) and folic acid (a synthetic form). Many prenatal vitamins contain synthetic folic acid, but many women have a genetic variation in their MTHFR gene that makes it hard to absorb it in that form. Talk to your doctor to determine the best prenatal vitamins for your needs.
You'll also want to ensure that your prenatal multivitamin is safe to ingest, both for you and your growing baby. Some prenatal vitamins may contain ingredients that you don't want to be ingesting every day.
Take the supplement ingredient carrageenan, for example. This seaweed variant is a common gelling agent in many vegan and plant-based pills and capsules. However, several studies have indicated that it can cause an inflammatory response upon ingesting, which can be dangerous when chronic.
It’s also important to note that it is possible to overdose on certain vitamins and minerals commonly found in prenatal vitamins. For example, fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin A are stored in your liver and can build up to toxic quantities if you take too much. Iron is another common nutrient you can have too much of, and high doses are especially harmful to children. Overly-high doses shouldn't be too much of a concern in most prenatal vitamins on the market, but make sure that you follow instructions carefully and keep your vitamins out of reach of any children.
This one may seem obvious, but you'll want to make sure that your prenatal vitamin -- and all of the ingredients that come along with it -- are 100% plant-based. Some of the essential vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients you'll need as a vegan (like Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, and omega-3s) are often sourced from animal products.
Other ingredients and fillers can also make a supplement non-vegan. For example, gelatin is a popular gelling ingredient in food and some dietary supplements (similar to carrageenan), but it’s made of animal collagen.
So as you're shopping around for a vegan prenatal supplement, be on the lookout for non-vegan ingredients on the nutrition facts label. Look for brands that specifically mention "plant-based" or "vegan" on the label to ensure that the nutrition sources and the capsule itself are vegan-friendly. It also helps to read the ingredients list as well to double-check.
What nutrients should vegans look for in a prenatal multivitamin?
Growing a baby is draining, as evidenced by the long list of essential nutrients you should look out for in a multivitamin. But if you are a vegan, your nutrient needs will need to be looked at even more closely in the absence of animal products.
The best prenatal vitamins for vegans will include nutrients that are hard to come by in plant-based diets, like omega-3s, Vitamin B12, iron, and Vitamin D. You may even need to take a separate supplement to meet these needs if your prenatal vitamin is not specifically tailored to people following a vegan diet. Talk to your doctor before choosing your prenatal supplement so you can determine the correct dosages for your needs.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
How much? 200 mg of DHA minimum
Omega-3 fatty acids are an important nutrient for every stage in your life, but they are vital during fetal development.
Omega-3s are important in pregnancy because they're a crucial component of your brain and overall nervous system cells. The omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is vital for healthy brain development.* In fact, several studies have shown that adequate DHA during your pregnancy can lead to babies who perform better in various cognitive activities!
Some of the best sources of DHA in foods are fatty fish like mackerel and tuna, which are not suitable for vegan diets. You can also get some omega-3s from plant-based foods like walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. But unfortunately, these food sources contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), not the DHA necessary for your growing baby.
Therefore, many vegans get their omega-3 fatty acids from algae supplements instead. These vegan omega 3 supplements are made from the oil of plant-based microalgae but contain the DHA necessary for healthy nervous system development.
How much? 6 mcg
Another key nutrient you’ll likely need to supplement in your vegan diet is Vitamin B12. This vitamin plays an important role in maintaining a healthy nervous system, and passing on enough of it to your baby may help prevent spinal and nervous system defects like spina bifida.
Unfortunately, B12 deficiencies are especially common among vegans and vegetarians because it is not naturally found in any plant-based foods. If you are vegan, you may want to find a prenatal vitamin with a higher B12 dose or take a separate B12 supplement altogether to ensure you are getting enough.
How much? 17 mg
The mineral iron is most often found in meat, eggs, and seafood, so many vegans find that they need to supplement it in their diet. It's an essential component for making hemoglobin, a type of protein found in your red blood cells that transports oxygen. Oxygen is, of course, one of the most critical nutrients for cells throughout your entire body, and an iron deficiency can lead to anemia.
Getting enough iron is even more crucial when you're pregnant since your blood volume increases to nourish both you and your growing baby. An iron deficiency can even lead to serious issues like premature births, low birth weights, and post-partum depression.
How much? 400 IU
Another nutrient that many plant-based eaters often find hard to come by, Vitamin D is important for bolstering your immune system and supporting healthy teeth and bones. In pregnancy, getting adequate amounts of Vitamin D helps your baby develop strong teeth and bones. Some research even suggests that it can help prevent the occurrence of preeclampsia, a serious complication in pregnancy evidenced by high blood pressure and even organ damage.
Do you need a post-natal vitamin?
The hard work doesn't stop after you give birth. Once you finally meet your baby, your body is then faced with a couple of other challenges that require excellent nutrition, both for yourself and your newborn.
Growing a child in your body for nine months is hard, taxing work on your body, not to mention the energy you’ll need to keep up with your new bundle of joy! You’ll need to continue nourishing yourself with high-quality foods and supplements to help your body heal from it all.
Breastfeeding will also take a considerable nutrition toll on your body. You'll want to pass on all the nutrients needed for the continuing healthy development of your baby
Luckily, many of the key nutrients that you’ll want to ensure are in your post-natal multivitamin will also have been in your prenatal supplements. Your post-natal dietary supplements should include nutrients like:
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
Feeding yourself with a good diet and supplements is one of the first acts of love you can show to your newborn, and it's also essential for taking good care of yourself! Look for plant-based prenatal vitamins that contain excellent doses of all these necessary nutrients you might be lacking as a vegan to give your baby the best head start.