Plant-Based Diets in Pregnancy: What You Need to Know

The decision to eat a plant based diet  is a complex one. You have decided to choose a plant-based diet for a variety of reasons, ethical, spiritually and, or medically. As we know plant-based diets have grown in popularity in the last decade but are they really that much better for your health? And more importantly do those same health benefits translate to the health benefits we need in pregnancy? 

 I’m glad you asked! Let’s dive in. 

The research points towards a few factors that might influence how we approach a plant based diet in pregnancy. One aspect is related to caloric intake, protein intake and birthweight and the other is related to nutritional deficiencies in pregnancy which can be seen when parents consume a plant based diet. Does this mean that everyone on a plant-based diet during pregnancy experiences nutrient deficiency? Probably not. But does going on a plant-based diet for a “healthier pregnancy” actually have evidence to back up its claim? 

Short answer… No. 

Caloric Intake and Protein Intake

Currently, the research suggests that babies born to parents consuming a plant based diet are smaller than the average baby. Small for gestational age babies (or SGA) do present risk factors when we look at the broader literature. For example, babies that are born SGA to diabetic parents are at risk for other neonatal risks and may struggle with growth and development compared to babies born at an average gestational weight. Although in theory a plant based patient has less health risks than a diabetic patient, we don’t know if these smaller babies born to plant based parents have the same risks or not.

The idea of smaller for gestation age babies and plant-based diets likely points to the need for adequate nutritional intake in plant based families including adequate carbohydrates and proteins. When parents under-fuel during pregnancy on either of these nutrients we see smaller than expected babies. This is likely why plant based babies are smaller in population studies.

 At NMD Wellness of Scottsdale, we value and respect everyone’s health choices but also want to make sure to ensure our patients are meeting their caloric and protein needs through their pregnancy. If patients aren’t sure if their diet is meeting the needs of their pregnancy, we often will audit their intake to assess where their current nutritional intake is and adjust if needed.

 Nutritional Deficiencies To Consider

Plant based diets can be low in vitamin B12, vitamin D, Omega-3 fats and choline. Each of these nutrients play a vital role in pregnancy health and fetal development and should be supplemented in plant-based pregnancies. Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D can be tested in patients and current guidelines recommend that plant based parents are screened more often than omnivore parents. 

So although not every woman on a plant-based diet will experience nutrient deficiencies or underfueling due to inadequate caloric intake, the fact is to date, we have no scientific evidence to support that a plant-based diet in pregnancy is beneficial. Does that mean that everyone on a plant-based diet should discontinue a plant-based diet? Maybe. Maybe Not. What the evidence tells us is that if a pregnant women does decide to continue a plant-based diet throughout pregnancy, additional monitoring, nutrient screening and support including dietary audits and evaluation are often extremely beneficial and can not only help you throughout your pregnancy but also reduce the risk of pregnancy complications including small for gestational age babies.

About the Author: Meet Dr. ZenAlissia Zenhausern- Pfeiffer, NMD, FABNE, (commonly known by her patients as Dr. Zen), is a licensed naturopathic doctor board certified in naturopathic endocrinology and the founder of NMD Wellness of Scottsdale, a premier naturopathic medical practice that focuses on helping women to take a proactive approach to their hormone and fertility health. Dr. Zen has been featured as a lead expert in Forbes, Shape Magazine, and Instyle and is deeply passionate about bridging the gap between traditional and natural medicine in the world of fertility. She works with a variety of hormone related issues including PCOS, endometriosis and unexplained infertility. Her goal is to help more women get back into the driver’s seat of their own health to make lasting transformational changes to their health to bring more cute and adorable babies into this world. Read More About Dr. Zen...