Breastfeeding for Vegans: Ensuring Healthy Breast Milk on a Vegan Diet

Many women are choosing vegetarian or vegan diets, thanks to numerous reports about the health benefits of such diets, including decreased incidence of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and obesity. For many patients who change from carnivorous diets to vegetarian or vegan diets, they report “feeling better” and in my experience have fewer issues with inflammatory diseases including eczema, asthma and arthritis, for example.

The concern some have over a vegan diet is maintaining an adequate intake of certain key vitamins and minerals. The most common issues are vitamin B12 deficiency, as well as iron deficiency. In fact, vegan mothers are some of Lactation Lab’s most common clients, eager to ensure that their babies are getting the nutrition they need.

One interesting study found that vegan and vegetarian mothers are more likely to breastfeed their children when compared to non-vegetarian mothers and they also did so for a longer period of time(1).

Although plant-based diets are at risk for nutritional deficiencies such as protein, iron, VItamin D, calcium, iodine, omega-3’s and B12, well-planned diets rich in grains and legumes combined with supplements can provide adequate nutrition to both mother and baby during pregnancy and breastfeeding.  Following a rich plant-based diet during pregnancy can also be protective against the development of preeclampsia, pregravid obesity and reduce the risk of their child developing asthma, diabetes and even some pediatric tumors (2).

In our own testing of the breast milk of vegan and vegetarian mothers at Lactation Lab,  we have seen tendencies of lower in B12, calcium and iron. We recommend all vegan and vegetarian women make sure they have an adequate source of B12, which is important for maintaining healthy a healthy central nervous system, production of DNA and RNA, formation of red blood cells and overall metabolism.

Protein intake should also be increased by 10% in vegan pregnant and breastfeeding women (3,4) and additional servings of protein-rich plant foods such as legumes, soy milk, soy yogurt, tofu, and meat analogs based on wheat or soy protein, nuts and seeds are essential.

Bottom Line: There are many benefits to vegan and vegetarian diets. We recommend that vegans that are nursing consider taking the following supplements: Calcium, iron, B12, DHA and Vitamin D (universally recommended for all breastfeeding infants).

References:

  1. Pawlak R., Ding C., Sovyanhadi M. Pregnancy outcome and breastfeeding pattern among vegans, vegetarians and nonvegetarians.

  2. Pistollato F., Summalla C., Elio I et al., Plant-based and plant-rich diet patterns during gestation: beneficial effects and possible shortcomings.

  3. Agnoli C., Baroni L., Bertini I. et al. Position Paper on vegetarian diets from the working group of the Italian Society of Human Nutrition.

  4. Kniskern, M. Johnston C., Protein dietary reference intakes may be inadequate for vegetarians if low amounts of animal protein are consumed.


Other resources:

Pawlak R., Vos P., Shahab-Ferdows S et al. Vitamin B12 content in breast milk of vegan, vegetarian and nonvegetarian lactating women in the United States

Sebastiani G., Barbero A., Borras-Novell C et al. The effects of vegetarian and vegan diet during pregnancy on the health of mothers and offspring.

Baroni L., Goggi S., Battagliano R. et al., Vegan Nutrition for Mothers and Children: practical tools for health care providers.