As a longtime vegetarian (and sometimes vegan), I was hesitant to jump on the Collagen craze of the last few years. But, as I became pregnant for the first time while we were in the thick of research for our Complete Plan, I came to understand how very important Collagen can be for all mamas, and especially those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
I want to start by saying that I respect your dietary choices, whether they are for religious, ethical, environmental, or other preferences. I am sharing this information as a resource that I wish I had known during my many years of following a restricted diet. It's our goal at Needed to inform and empower women to make the best prenatal nutrition choices for themselves. We believe knowledge is power, and it's never our intention to add to the #momguilt. There's way more than enough of that to go around.
With that being said, let's dive into why collagen for vegetarians can be so beneficial.
Why is Collagen Needed for New Mamas?
Pregnancy is a very nutritionally demanding time. It’s not impossible to have a healthy pregnancy and postpartum while following a strictly vegan or vegetarian diet, but it is very very difficult to maintain adequate nutrition while doing so. Several of the most critical nutrients for pregnancy, like Choline, Active Vitamin A, B12, Omega-3, and the amino acids Glycine and Proline are simply not abundant in a vegetarian or vegan diet. For example, to meet your daily Choline needs on a vegetarian diet, you would need to consume upwards of 6 pasture-raised eggs per day every day (which we don't recommend you try!)
Prior to becoming pregnant, I ate what I thought was an incredibly well-rounded diet abundant in plant-based fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, and healthy fats like avocado and coconut oil. But, through preconception nutritional testing I learned that I was super deficient in key nutrients for pregnancy including all of the aforementioned ones that are lacking in a vegetarian diet. I, along with my co-founder Ryan, dug into the research and realized I was far from alone. Up to 95% of mamas are deficient in key pregnancy nutrients like Omega-3 and Choline (especially those with restricted diet), and these deficiencies worsen throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. This can lead to difficulty conceiving, inadequate brain/neurodevelopment in baby, maternal mood imbalances, and hormone irregularities. Supplements really are so needed in today's environment, due to a lack of diversity in our diets, poor soil quality, environmental toxins and more.
And, it's not just micronutrients that most mamas are lacking in. Many women also struggle to consume enough protein during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Based on this research and my lab work, I decided that during my pre-conception, pregnancy, and postpartum years, I would make the necessary modifications to my plant-based diet to ensure that my baby and I were getting all we needed. This included introducing a comprehensive Prenatal Multi and Omega-3 supplement, and also swapping out my plant-based protein powder for hydrolyzed Collagen.
Let's unpack why extra protein is needed before, during, and after pregnancy:
- Your body needs a lot of protein (75-100 grams per day) during pregnancy to help the baby and placenta grow, to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, and to support your own energy and wellbeing
- I found as a vegetarian it was tough to fit in enough. Even eating eggs, and incorporating in dairy (which I used to avoid pre-pregnancy), I still struggled to feel satiated and to hit over 50 grams per day. Eggs only offer 6 grams, almond butter includes only a few grams per serving, plant-based milks don’t have much protein at all. While I love beans, legumes, and quinoa, I really couldn't stomach them in the first trimester, and later there was only so much of them I could get in per day. There are concerns about consuming too much soy (especially if it’s non-GMO), so I needed something else to fill in the gaps.
Is it Really Safe to Take Collagen While Breastfeeding?
If collagen is new to you, or if you are considering it for the first time, you might be wondering, can you take collagen while breastfeeding? The answer is, absolutely! Our team of perinatal practitioners agree that collagen is not only safe, but beneficial for postpartum recovery and breastfeeding. That said, like all food and supplements, quality matters.
Why I Choose Collagen
Why Collagen specifically:
- Collagen contains Glycine and Proline, two amino acids that are largely missing from a vegetarian or vegan diet. These amino acids are critical for skin stretching, pelvic floor repair, healthy hair, skin, nails, and joints, sleep, tissue repair, thyroid health, and gut health.
- Hydrolyzed Collagen, unlike most plant-based powders that are very chalky, is a super light, tasteless, and easy-to-digest supplement. I mix it into everything from smoothies, to soups, to nut milk lattes, and oatmeal.
- Plant-based protein powders are big offenders when it comes to heavy metals, so supplementing with pea/hemp/brown rice protein is not the best option during pregnancy. That's why many plant-based powders carry Prop 65 warnings on them. Not ideal!
- Ethical Sourcing. A big reason for my eliminating or reducing animal products from my diet was due to my concern for the environment and for the welfare of animals. But, I got comfortable adding in hydrolyzed Collagen in my diet because it is a way to utilize the whole animal (specifically, the hides of grass-fed bovine that would otherwise be discarded in our modern day food system that preferences filets/prize meat cuts over the whole animal nose-to-tail).
- Lastly, bang for your buck! My husband is a meat eater, and when we buy for him we make sure the high quality meat and fish he eats is traceable back to a trusted source. It's expensive, and it's limiting (even when we buy from farmer’s markets here in California). Collagen is a great way to get in really high quality protein in a pretty affordable way.
Is Hydrolyzed Collagen Vegan?
You may be wondering: is there a vegetarian Collagen option? Unfortunately, not really. Some companies market a vegetarian Collagen, but what they sell doesn't include the Glycine, Proline, and protein you are looking for (recall that the specific amino acids Glycine and Proline are not abundant in vegetarian foods). Instead, these products contain co-factors like Vitamin C that helps your body to naturally produce Collagen (mostly for beauty benefits). These products are not a substitute for hydrolyzed Collagen for vegetarians.
On a personal level, I view adding in hydrolyzed Collagen Protein in my diet as a needed addition to my vegetarian diet. Just like any other supplement that I take, I want to make sure the sourcing is ethical, sustainable for the environment, and that the ingredients are all third-party tested for safety and purity during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Our Collagen Protein meets all of my standards.
How to incorporate collagen into your pregnancy routine
Here's how I as a new mama have incorporated hydrolyzed Collagen into my pregnancy routine and how I took Collagen postpartum:
- I wish I had used Collagen in my first trimester. Although I didn’t really experience morning sickness, I did have strong food aversions. I couldn’t stomach much protein at all for a few weeks. Protein is shown to help curb morning sickness, but it’s a chicken and the egg problem as many mamas really struggle to eat animal proteins early in pregnancy
- Once I finally decided to give Collagen a try in my second trimester, I began adding it into my morning smoothie almost daily. This super easy routine continued through breastfeeding (I even taught my husband how to make my favorite smoothie before our baby arrived, so that I could continue enjoying it in the hazy newborn days).
- On days I don’t make a smoothie in the morning, I’ll mix it into a bowl of oatmeal, or warming lentil soup, or even into a mug of veggie or mushroom broth. It has almost zero taste and no texture once blended (if anything, the texture is a positive as it makes smoothies and other foods “fluffier” in a good way)
- One of my newfound favorites is to blend Collagen with cacao, warm almond milk, and a hint of vanilla extract (or our Vanilla prenatal multi powder)--the Collagen makes for a creamy/frothy hot chocolate (or try it iced for a “frosty” like taste)
- A huge bonus for breastfeeding mamas--other vegan/veg mama friends and I have found it is a big booster of milk supply! I’ll take it.
I hope you found this blog post to be helpful. We are here for you at every step in your prenatal and postnatal nutrition journey.
Julie Sawaya is the co-founder of Needed, and the mother of two girls.