Breastfeeding · Nutrition · Postpartum · Preconception · Pregnancy

3 Foods for Vegans to Consider for Pregnancy & Postpartum

This post might ruffle some feathers, but it’s an important one. A very controversial topic in the nutrition world is veganism. There are different reasons one may choose to follow a vegan lifestyle. To each their own. One perfect diet for everyone truly does not exist. However, being that there are certain nutrients that naturally only exist in animal foods and those same nutrients are crucial for fertility, pregnancy, and postpartum health, a few exceptions might be taken into consideration for the baby-making period.

**Please note: I’m not trying to call any of these foods “vegan-friendly foods”. None of them are plants. Nor am I trying to create a debate. I respect your choices and beliefs. I also believe, however, these foods can provide specific nutrients not found in plants, or are found in more absorbable forms than what’s available in plants, and will help support this reproductive stage of life when these nutrients are so crucial. 

GRASS-FED (OR RAW) BUTTER

Butter is one of the most common foods that was demonized not that long ago, and is still feared by many today for its saturated fat content even though saturated fat is a necessity in a healthy diet. Butter is also a dairy product, and therefore, not considered a vegan-friendly food. Quite frankly, I absolutely agree in not supporting the Big Dairy Industry. The factory farms and the treatment of the dairy cows are horrific. However, that’s not the only way to get butter, and it goes beyond just choosing organic. Purchasing butter that’s made from cows that are properly raised out on pasture, eating grass, soaking up the sun, and moving around as she pleases is a far better option. Kerrygold is a widely available brand that raises pastured cows that are grass fed for most of the year, with the exception of inclement weather. The absolute best first option, though, is to find a local farm where you can actually SEE how the cows are being raised. These farms may be able to offer you fresh made butter or cream to make your own butter. Depending on what state you live in, you may even be able to purchase any of these in raw form, which is even better and more nutritious. If you can’t purchase directly from the farm, ask if they participate in a farmer’s market or any kind of community supported agriculture (CSA).

WHAT’S THE HEALTH BENEFIT?

Grass-fed butter is a powerhouse food. It’s about 40-60% saturated fat, a very necessary type of fat in our bodies as well as a growing fetus, and nutritious breastmilk. This, in itself, is not really what vegans are missing though, as coconut oil is one kind of vegan-friendly source of saturated fat. However, what’s missing from the coconut oil and is found in butter is hormone-healthy cholesterol, active form vitamin A (retinol), vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K2, heart-disease preventing conjugated linoleic acid, and several minerals. Those fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K2 are fertility-friendly, as well as necessary for a healthy pregnancy and postpartum. Vitamins D and E are powerful antioxidants keeping both mom and baby healthy through pregnancy and breastfeeding. Vitamin K2 is necessary for skeletal health for both mom and baby. There needs to be adequate vitamin K2 coming in for the development of baby’s skeleton, or it will take it from mom’s body leaving her bones and tissues at risk for deficiencies. *It’s important to know that vitamin K1 and K2 are different and serve different purposes. Vitamin K1, most notably known for blood-clotting qualities, is found in plant foods, while K2 is found in animal foods, such as grass-fed dairy, as well as fermented foods. Even though K1 can be converted to K2 by the bacteria in the large intestine, this is challenging for most people who have gut issues (diagnosed or not), bacterial imbalances, or have taken antibiotics. Vitamin A, or retinol, has been shown to be beneficial for fertility, as well as play some major roles in proper fetal development. 

 

OYSTERS

Oysters, a popular seafood, might be considered a “gray area” for some vegans. Oysters are obviously a living thing, making it against the basis of vegan ethics to consume. At the same time, oysters actually lack a scientifically detectable central nervous system, which means they don’t feel pain, also a major topic in the vegan world. If this sits well with you, consider bringing in some oysters to your diet, even if just for this stage of life.

WHAT’S THE HEALTH BENEFIT?

Oysters provide plenty of nutrients, most notably vitamin B12, zinc, and iron. Vitamin B12, in it’s natural forms, is one of the nutrients vegans lack without proper supplementation because it’s not found in plant foods. (Many B12 supplements consist of cyanocobalamin, but this is the synthetic version and not as easily absorbed as a natural form like methylcobalamin.) Vitamin B12 has many health benefits. Consuming oysters for methylcobalamin will also provide methylfolate, which works simultaneously with the B12, increasing absorption and working together to maintain red blood cells, prevent spina bifida, and assist in the development of the baby’s central nervous system. Zinc is necessary for everything from sperm motility to wound healing after childbirth. Iron, found as highly absorbable heme-iron in animal products, is necessary for blood building in pregnancy. According to Lily Nichols in her book, Real Food for Pregnancy, “Low iron status during pregnancy is a risk factor for preeclampsia, hypothyroidism, and preterm birth. It also directly affects the iron status of your baby – low levels are associated with impaired brain development and stunted growth.” While both iron and zinc are not nutrients specific to animal foods, the bioavailability from animal sources is higher than when they come from plants or synthetic supplements. In addition, plant foods also provide phytic acid which can inhibit the absorption of zinc, iron, and other minerals. Oysters also provide true form vitamin A, called retinol, very different from the beta-carotene found in plant foods, and also necessary for fertility and proper fetal development.


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PASTURE-RAISED EGGS (only from small local farms)

This one may be the most controversial and the most difficult to actually carry out depending on your location.  Hens lay eggs naturally, with no necessary outside intervention, so the natural egg laying process is not any kind of cruelty to the animal. The cruelty comes in when the chicken is raised in a condition completely unnatural and unhealthy. There’s no arguing that chickens on factory farms are horribly mistreated, even shortly after birth for male layer chickens, so choosing to not support big agri-business for the egg industry is totally agreeable. This even goes for eggs labeled as “free range” in the grocery store. But what if there was a small farm nearby humanely raising chickens, allowing them to live out their lives on pasture basically as pets, and simply collecting the eggs they already naturally lay? (A rooster is not necessary for egg-laying. And no intervention needs to happen for a hen to lay an egg. A layer hen will lay eggs on a regular basis as part of its natural life. The rooster can fertilize the egg if that’s desired, and may also provide protection to the hen, but he does not need to be present for the hen to create and lay an edible egg.) If that is something accessible to you, I encourage you to go visit that farm, ask some questions, and possibly bring some of those eggs into your diet. Alternatively, if your zoning laws allow and you have the space for it, consider raising a few hens in your own backyard so you can be sure your hens are properly treated and you can reap the health benefits of the egg, particularly the yolk.

WHAT’S THE HEALTH BENEFIT?

Pasture-raised egg yolks are nature’s multivitamin, providing important nutrients like hormone-healthy cholesterol, B12, vitamins A, D, and E, DHA (a type of omega 3), and choline, all necessary for healthy baby-making, nutritious breastmilk, and mama’s mental health particularly postpartum. Choline, specifically, is one nutrient vegans often lack. Choline is found in plant foods, but in very small amounts. Pregnancy and breastfeeding require much higher amounts of choline than standard portions of plant foods can provide. Even prenatal vitamins only provide a small percentage of actual requirements, while others lack it completely. Eggs, from properly raised chickens, can provide about 115 mg of choline in a single yolk versus roughly 30-50 mg per 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. Egg yolks are also a great form of DHA, an important omega 3 fatty acid, necessary for healthy egg and sperm, fetal brain development, and mom’s brain health. Omega 3s found in plant foods must be converted to DHA (and EPA), which typically doesn’t happen very efficiently.

 

AN ALTERNATIVE

If you’re unable to bring yourself to actually eat these foods, I’d strongly recommend a multi-organ supplement such as Paleo Valley’s Organ Complex. This is a supplement made up of heart, liver, and kidney and will provide a wide range of highly necessary nutrients such as preformed vitamin A (retinol), folate, B12, choline, CoQ10, iron, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin K2, vitamin E, and several others. It’s obviously, still not vegan, but for some people, the idea of taking a supplement is easier to accept than eating a food against their beliefs. 

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