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Should you give up being vegan when pregnant?

PregnantActor Natalie Portman recently announced that she had relinquished veganism during her pregnancy to satisfy cravings for non-vegan foods. Is adhering to veganism in the face of strong pregnancy cravings impossible? Alison Waters, who has had three vegan pregnancies, argues that it isn’t – and that pregnancy is, in fact, an optimal time for vegans to stick with it.

15 May 2011

“Perhaps others disagree with me that animals have personalities, but the highly documented torture of animals is unacceptable,” asserts actor Natalie Portman in her October 2009 opinion piece on Eating Animals.

Portman attributes Jonathan Safran Foer’s book with transforming her from a “20-year vegetarian” to a “vegan activist”. She states: “What Foer most bravely details is how eating animals pollutes not only our backyards, but also our beliefs. He reminds us that our food is symbolic of what we believe in, and that eating is how we demonstrate to ourselves and to others our beliefs … This book reminded me that some things are just wrong.” 

In light of her passionate comments, what can we make of Portman’s recent decision to revert to vegetarianism during her pregnancy? “I actually went back to being vegetarian when I became pregnant, just because I felt like I wanted that stuff,” Portman said during a radio interview in April this year. “I was listening to my body to have eggs and dairy and that sort of stuff.”

Portman acknowledges that women “do stay vegan: during pregnancy, but adds: “I think you have to just be careful, watch your iron levels and your B12 levels and supplement those if there are things you might be low in in your diet”. Portman discusses her experience of non-vegan food cravings: “If you're not eating eggs, then you can't have cookies or cake from regular bakeries, which can become a problem when that's all you want to eat...”

These remarks imply that Portman’s cravings overrode her vegan values – barely 18 months after she referred to herself as a “vegan activist”. Does her decision to consume animal products mean that she no longer regards the torture of animals as “unacceptable”? Portman was obviously deeply influenced by Foer’s text. She made an intellectual and rational decision to become vegan.

So, are pregnancy cravings so powerful that they can override deeply held beliefs?

Journalist Elisabeth Lambert recounts her experience of pregnancy cravings and morning sickness during her ‘vegan’ pregnancy. Lambert adopted a vegan diet for health-related reasons two years prior to her first pregnancy. “I declared to all who would listen that I planned to stick with veganism throughout my pregnancy.”

In her article, ‘I’m pregnant, vegan and all I want is a Junior Burger’, Lambert reveals that her first trimester morning sickness could only be alleviated by the consumption of a fat-laden, sugar-loaded, salt-burdened and very non-vegan burger from McDonalds.

“I let myself go into a burger stupor, knocking back burger after burger. When I finally battered the demon inside with beef and buns, my husband, slightly bemused, pointed out I’d knocked back five Junior Burgers in under 20 minutes.”

Lambert’s “insatiable appetite” for Junior Burgers continued in to her third trimester. She admits to having ‘the smallest of niggles in the back of [her] mind’ that she had ‘failed’ her baby and herself. However, Lambert declares: “If Ms Portman, Oscar-winning actress with millions in her bank account to spend on chefs, dieticians, nutritionists and health professionals, couldn’t keep up a vegan diet during pregnancy, then how was a mere mortal like myself expected to?”

On the day that Essential Baby published Lambert’s Junior Burger article, Lambert introduced a second article, Vegan Checklist for Pregnant Women, with the following statement: “As a result of choosing to be a vegan throughout my pregnancy, I have put together a basic checklist that all pregnant vegans and their partners/supporters should know.” (My emphasis).

It should come as no surprise that Lambert – who devoured “a bunch of burgers from the Golden Arches: during her pregnancy – includes the following suggestion in the checklist: “It is imperative to keep in mind that there are definitely some situations when expectant vegans should consider revising their diets to include animal products.”

Lambert concludes the checklist with a comment from Dr Leon Massage, founder and medical director of the Body Metabolism Institute and spokesperson on weight loss and nutrition for the Australian Medical Association (VIC): “I have treated many people, and women in particular, who have had a problem with their immune response after several years of strict vegetarian or vegan diets .... when small amounts of fish or chicken were added to their diets, symptoms improved dramatically.”

This comment does not refer specifically to pregnant women. A search of the Body Metabolism Institute (BMI) website reveals that Dr Massage is ‘an eminent practising doctor who has specialised in weight loss for more than 20 years, [and] is passionate about weight loss, health and disease prevention’.

The ‘checklist’ and the BMI website do not provide information about Dr. Massage’s professional experience with vegan pregnancy. Pregnant vegans are entitled to ask why Lambert included a generalised quote in her vegan pregnancy checklist – referring to vegetarian and vegan ‘women in general’ – from a doctor who specialises in weight loss.

Perhaps Lambert included Dr Massage’s comment to provide a justification for her decision to abandon a vegan diet during pregnancy.

I am disappointed by Lambert’s decision to refer to her checklist as ‘vegan’ – and to introduce it by giving the impression that she maintained a vegan diet during her pregnancy.

There are an abundance of ‘mainstream’ pregnancy books, websites and articles that ‘inform’ women about the ‘necessity’ to eat animal products in order to grow a baby and thrive during pregnancy – Lambert’s checklist is merely another contribution of this nature.

I expect a ‘vegan checklist’ to provide pregnant vegans with information and support about maintaining a healthy and nutritious vegan diet. Pregnant vegans would be wise to avoid Lambert’s checklist. The checklist may be popular with people who believe that a vegan pregnancy is risky and irresponsible, as well as pregnant women seeking validation for their decision to abandon veganism and ‘give in’ to non-vegan cravings.

Morning sickness, pregnancy cravings and Natalie Portman have been used as rationalisations for Lambert’s monumental failure to maintain a vegan diet during pregnancy. Lambert made an intellectual decision to become vegan for her own health. Yet, she abandoned veganism during pregnancy – an optimal time to uphold a healthy and vibrant diet.

Pregnant vegans speak out

Clearly, vegan women are not immune to pregnancy cravings. I was surprised to experience a persistent – and unwanted – craving for a very non-vegan ‘food’ during one of my pregnancies: cottage cheese. I had not regarded dairy products as a food source for 10 years prior to my pregnancy. My commitment to the vegan ethos ensured that I did not indulge the craving. A desire to live in concert with my deeply held value system – and logic – prevailed. And I am a ‘mere mortal’.

Health-conscious vegans may find themselves craving junk foods during pregnancy. Vegan mum, Kerri, experienced cravings for unhealthy foods: “Suddenly, all I could think about was junk food … greasy, disgusting, artery-clogging fast food. Once a healthy, whole grain and salad lovin’ vegan, I suddenly became a junk food craving lunatic.”

In her humorous article, ‘Not-So-Vegan Pregnancy Cravings’, Caity McCardell discusses the challenges of dealing with unwanted, non-vegan food cravings. She affirms: “For me, there's more at stake than my cravings. I've made a commitment to animal welfare and I'm determined to live up to that stand. I know from experience and research that my body and my baby don't need animal protein.”

McCardell acknowledges the difficulties that non-vegan pregnancy cravings can present: “If you're vegan and pregnant and craving crap, you have all my sympathy. I understand the pain and frustration and discomfort.”

She provides advice for pregnant vegans who are experiencing unwanted cravings: “I encourage you to focus on your compassion, your commitment and the larger picture ... Seek out people who will help you be strong.”

McCardell suggests that pregnant vegans ask themselves the following questions: “What does the original commitment to health, animal welfare, the environment mean? Does the decision to be vegan disappear if a speed bump gets in our way? Do we abandon our principles when our hormones are so wacked out?”

I do not aim to underestimate the negative impacts of morning sickness and food aversions. As someone who experiences debilitating morning sickness during pregnancy, I can relate to Lambert’s encounter with morning sickness. I endured all-day nausea throughout the first 16 weeks of my pregnancies.

During my first pregnancy I vomited each day of the first trimester. There was a period when dry crackers and toast were the only foods I could stomach. I felt repulsed by foods that I had previously adored – like tomatoes, eggplants, hommus; and my favourite breakfast, banana and berry smoothie.

Portman’s comment, “I think you have to just be careful...” gives the impression that embarking on a vegan pregnancy may be risky. Lambert’s checklist certainly reinforces that view. I regard it as unfortunate that the negative promotion of vegan pregnancy may influence women to abandon their veganism.

Vegan mum, Kenya, writes on her blog, “I feel a sense of obligation to continue documenting the healthy existence of our vegan twins. All of the disinformation out there on vegan pregnancy and raising vegan children must be combated. When I peruse other ‘vegan’ pregnancy blogs I am astonished by the number of people that think exploiting animals during their pregnancy is okay. Vegan pregnancy isn’t hard...”

Pregnant vegans are able to obtain optimal nutrition on a vegan diet – and grow healthy vegan babies.  The American Dietetic Association maintains that “well-planned vegan and vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy and lactation”.

In their book Becoming Vegan Brenda Davis & Vesanto Melina state that a vegan diet “can support very healthy pregnancies, however, vegan mothers do need to ensure adequate intake of energy and nutrients”.

Queensland Health has developed a comprehensive guide to healthy eating for pregnant and breastfeeding vegans. The guide states: “A well planned vegan diet is able to meet nutrition requirements for pregnancy and breastfeeding.” And there is no recommendation for vegan women to consume animal products! It is a genuine ‘vegan checklist’.

McCardell has advice for pregnant vegans, such as Portman, who consume non-vegan food during pregnancy: “Please don't get down on yourself. You can always jump right back up on the wagon and eliminate the animal bits again.”

Can we expect Natalie Portman to rediscover veganism after the birth of her child? Will she raise her child as a vegan? In her opinion piece, Portman asks, “What stories do we want to tell our children through their food?”

I sincerely hope that she is influenced again by the man she refers to as “brave” – who states in Eating Animals: “Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more.”

Next month: Raising vegan children

Alison Waters is a freelance writer who holds Bachelor degrees in Social Work and Arts (Welfare Studies). She works in the area of family violence, and enjoys writing about vegan parenting and animal rights. She is the mother of three healthy vegan children.





0 #9 J Kleese 2012-10-29 03:01
To "H" (the previous comment): Following that logic, we could claim that God created women for men, black people for white people, etc. etc.. Get real. If God created animals as a food source for humans, then I assume you would be just as comfortable eating a dog or a giraffe as you would a cow? I feel sad for you that you feel the need to live your life according to the writings in an ancient, outmoded book. Why not challenge what you have been taught? More and more research is showing that abstaining from meat and animal products is beneficial for health. Far from depriving your body and baby's health, you are doing them both a favor if you eat a healthful, plant-based diet and cut out the cholesterol and saturated fats of animal-based "foods".
-1 #8 H 2012-04-08 01:50
God created animals as a food source for humans. Do not deprive your bodies and your babies
0 #7 Dani 2012-03-21 15:46
I think it's hypocritical for Natalie Portman to just give up vegan all of the sudden. I know of some doctor who told a pregnant woman in the office in which I used to get gyno health from that she would have a miscarriage and was harming the baby because she didn't eat meat and chose to stick to her vegetarian/vega n lifestyle. How awful! I would rather know, that when if I ever got pregnant, that being vegan/vegetaria n was a benefit. I wouldn't change my values for anything. Just my opinino.
0 #6 Kettles.boiled 2011-11-19 05:12
Really enjoyed reading this article. It really upsets me that anyone who is vegan could just give up being vegan so easily. I am pregnant and i have craved various things, including mcdonalds burgers after smelling them when walking by a store the other day, but i would NEVER dream of giving up my vegan values. Besides anything else i know that a vegan diet, when done well, is the healthiest i could be eating. If i know that a vegan diet is the best and healthiest thing for me then surely that follows i would never feed my child anything but a vegan diet. Which i wouldn't.
I am glad there are other vegan mothers who feel the same.
0 #5 Jule 2011-10-21 09:24
I've never been preggers so I hate to judge but I am a junk food junkie and I am a vegan. I have cravings all the time for sweet, greasy, salty, you name it ( I am overweight as a result). There is a recipe for anything. I've made vegan corned beef, vegan beef stroganoff, pizza, sundaes with whipped cream, doughnuts (fried in coconut oil), or any kind of baked goods, vegan sausage, bacon, nachos, you name it! I cook the majority of it myself. If I had the money to hire someone to cook for me that would be even easier. I think these woman gave in for other reasons. I know that doctors and EVERYONE else around you can be very intimidating especially when there is a baby in the picture! The pressure can be very difficult.
0 #4 Michelle 2011-06-04 08:29
This is too bad. I have lost a little respect for Natalie Portman. She obviously didn't sufficiently research the vegan options available to her, instead chose to listen to fear-mongering doctors. And delicious baked goods CAN be made without eggs & milk! You would think that with her money & fame, she would have easy access to a vegan chef/baker. More importantly, a pregnant woman's nutritional needs cannot be met by consuming copious amounts of baked goods or Junior burgers. Just because you have cravings, does not mean it is healthy for you OR your baby to stuff your face without thinking.
0 #3 The Rational Vegan 2011-05-15 19:28

One of the linked articles by Caty McCardell suggests reading literature from Vegan Outreach, which is actually a welfare organization. Her confusion of the terms may stem from that.
0 #2 The Rational Vegan 2011-05-15 17:59
Good article. I've written a little blurb on my blog about it.
0 #1 Rico 2011-05-15 17:56
Thanks Alison - great article!

The Queensland Health guide is also a potentially great resource, although it makes me wonder what they think vegans are, since it mentions butter at the bottom of the first page (June 2010 version), and talks about milk, cheese and yoghurt in the iron section on the next page. This maybe goes to show how badly being vegan is understood generally - although you'd think a government health body would have a handle on it.

Also, i think Caty McCardell meant to say 'animal rights' rather than 'animal welfare', since a commitment to animal 'welfare' wouldn't necessarily stop you from eating animal products.

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