Welcome to the first installment of the series "Vegan, 40 and Pregnant" chronicling the challenges of a late maternal age pregnancy while also adhering to a strict vegan diet.
Part One: You're Vegan? But Where Do You Get Your Protein?
Each week, BabyCenter.com sends me an email telling me how big my unborn baby is. She was once the size of a bean. Then a lemon. An apple. A bell pepper. Now, at 19 weeks, she's roughly the size of an "heirloom tomato." I like that they compare my daughter to fruits and vegetables—the main part of our diet. (I like it even more that they also made the important distinction of noting the much more flavorful heirloom tomato.) But I don't love the recent list they emailed me: "The ten best foods for pregnancy." The list is filled with foods I haven't touched in years: fish, eggs, meat and dairy. It seems that no matter how many successful vegan and vegetarian births occur (just think about how many babies are born in India each year to vegetarians!), this country still suffers from a protein myth.
A few weeks ago, my midwife had me journal my food intake for four days. She does this to determine eating habits and to see where I need to supplement. Any mother-to-be knows that you need to increase your protein intake during pregnancy. My target: 70 grams. I wasn't too nervous about the quality of the food I eat. Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans are the norm for this food writer. Once the morning sickness finally wore off and I was able to eat again, it was like reuniting with an old friend, or taking a trip to a favorite vacation spot. I can't get enough of fresh salads, hearty soups and stews—all homemade with as many ingredients from my local farmers market as possible.
But it did occur to me that I had no idea about my protein intake. Funny, since it's the one question most every vegan is guaranteed to hear from the uninformed non-vegan. I've never actually measured out my portions to verify whether or not I was coming close to my daily protein needs, let alone my baby's. My midwife did some quick calculations on the pages, "Good," she said, "Very good. You're getting at least 60-70 grams of protein per day. Keep it up!" Well then. It turns out, as countless vegans have long suspected, there is no shortage of protein in the vegetable kingdom. The added bonus, of course, is that these foods also include lots of fiber, which is healthy for all of us, pregnant or otherwise, and scores of necessary vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other miracles of the plant kingdom.
So, where exactly do I get my vegan protein?
Beans: They're easy, versatile, filled with flavor, fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein. I mix them up regularly. Black beans and pintos top the favorite list, but I also love the many white bean varieties as well as deeper in color and texture red beans. There are some amazing heirloom bean varieties too that are quite delicious. Soak 'em overnight and then cook them for about an hour or two until tender. I like to make them in big batches, adding them to different dishes out of the stash in the fridge throughout the week.
Hemp: Not only is hemp full of super digestible protein, but it's also loaded with fiber, and is a most excellent source of essential fatty acids (which the baby also needs lots of). I sprinkle hemp seeds on top of my almond yogurt, add them to salads (with a hemp seed oil salad dressing) and often just eat them straight up. Sometimes I make smoothies with hemp protein, too.
Nuts: This is one of the best protein-rich snacks. My midwife says every snack should have a protein in it and a handful of almonds does the trick.
Chia: Like hemp, the chia seed is a great source of protein, fiber and healthy fats. I soak them in almond milk so they plump up like tapioca and eat them for breakfast or for a creamy snack.
Wheat gluten: As a wheat product, it's not always the easiest to digest, but when a pregnant craving for a veggie dog comes on…well, let's just say the best thing you can do is fire up the grill and get out of the way.
Soy: The same rule applies as gluten. This is not a go-to ingredient for every day protein, whether you're pregnant or not. But any vegan living in Los Angeles likely knows the allure of Flore's Tempeh Reuben…it is drool-covered marriage proposal worthy. Always opt for organic or Non-GMO verified soy products.
Vegetables: While not much to brag about, many fruits and vegetables do contain small amounts of protein. Every little bit helps in meeting the 70-gram mark, and there are so many additional benefits to eating fruits and veggies every day while pregnant and breastfeeding that make them a crucial part of a healthy diet. Turns out BabyCenter may just be on to something after all. I'm guessing that next week they'll tell me my baby is the size of a gorgeous romanesco.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
Image: Sacred Pregnancy