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As more Australians opt for meat-free diets, some are cutting out animal products altogether and going vegan. But is this safe for pregnant women and babies?

It is possible to meet the specific nutrient requirements of pregnancy, breastfeeding and infancy while following a vegan diet, but there is a catch: it must be well-planned.

Researchers have developed four criteria to guide vegan food choices during the crucial life stages of pregnancy, lactation, infancy and early childhood. These four criteria will help form the nutritional foundation of a healthy vegan diet:

1) Meet your total kilojoule needs by eating large amounts and a wide variety of plant foods.

Plant food groups include grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruit, with an emphasis on whole foods and those that are minimally processed.

Take care to ensure your fibre intake is not excessive during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood. Too much fibre means you will fill up before you have eaten enough food to meet all your nutrient needs.

2) Choose your vegetable fat sources and quantities carefully.

Don’t limit total fat intake during infancy. Many high-fibre vegan foods are low in kilojoules and need a lot of chewing. By including higher-fat choices you can boost the number of kilojoules in each meal or snack so infants get enough kilojoules to grow properly.

To ensure the omega-3 fats are well metabolised, consume plenty of food that are rich in omega-3 fats, such as ground chia seeds, flaxseed oil and walnuts; and fat sources high monounsaturated like olive oil.

Avoid foods rich in omega-6 fats, such as sunflower and safflower margarine and oil, and tropical fats including coconut and palm oils, as they can compete with the omega-3 fats to be metabolised. You can give omega-3s a competitive advantage by reducing the other fat types.

Chia seeds are a good source of omega-3. Shutterstock
3) Ensure you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D.

Consume plant foods rich in calcium, including calcium-fortified soy and nut beverages, some breakfast cereals, tofu, nuts and seeds.

Vitamin D status depends on sun exposure and supplements rather than diet. You can download the SunSmart app to find out how much sun exposure is OK and when you do and don’t need sun protection, based on where you live.

4) Take vitamin B12 supplements and/or use foods fortified with vitamin B12.

Vitamin B12 is needed to make red blood cells, to make myelin which insulates nerves, for some neurotransmitters that help the brain function, and to make DNA.

Fortified foods include some dairy-free soy and nut milks and soy “meats”. Check the nutrition information panel on the label.