08 Jun Vegan and Breastfeeding? What You Need to Know
If you’re wondering how a plant-based diet affects breast milk, I have good news for you: breastfeeding while vegan is safe and healthy for both Mom and Baby, as long as Mom’s eating pattern is well-planned.
Vegan diets are gaining traction in the US as a way to maximize health and minimize carbon footprint. Nearly 25% of 25-34 year olds describe themselves as vegan or vegetarian, according to The Economist (1).
Many vegan millennials = many vegan new-mothers. In fact, vegan moms are more likely to breastfeed than their vegetarian or meat-eating counterparts (2).
A Quick Rundown About Veganism
Eating vegan means avoiding all animal-derived foods. That means no meat, eggs, dairy, nor any foods made from those ingredients (cheese, yogurt, butter, gelatin, etc). Moms might be vegan while breastfeeding for cultural, environmental, or health reasons.
Though veganism may seem like a fad because of its recent surge in popularity, there is actually substantial evidence to support the diet’s health benefits. A vegan diet has been linked to:
- Lower risk of diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, certain types of cancer, and obesity (3)
- Lower-than-average rate of cesarean delivery, less postpartum depression, and lower neonatal and maternal mortality (among moms who eat vegan during pregnancy) (4)
- Increased environmental sustainability because plant-food production requires fewer natural resources than animal-food production (3)
Are you following a vegetarian diet? A lot of these benefits still apply to you! Take note that if you eat eggs, dairy, or fish, you’re likely getting more of the micronutrients listed below than you would if you ate exclusively plant-based.
Also Quickly – Why Breastfeed?
Breastfeeding is the biologically normal way to feed infants and children. Its benefits form a mile-long list, ranging from establishing the baby’s microbiome to preventing obesity to helping mom’s uterus contract after birth (5).
Exclusively breastfeeding (no foods, no formula) is recommended until age six months. Then, breastfeeding along with foods is recommended until at least age two years (6).
In this blog post, “breastfeeding” refers to nursing, pumping, hand expression, and any other method of providing human milk.
How Diet Affects Milk Quality (whether or not you’re vegan)
Breast milk is packed with nutrients provided directly from the mother’s body. Her daily meals and snacks must provide a steady supply of “ingredients” to make this super-nutritious fluid. To produce milk as well as maintain her own health, Mom needs an adequate amount of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fat) as well as micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
Adequacy is the key to nutrition while breastfeeding. Eating too little of a nutrient can decrease milk quality and quantity, but eating an extra amount of a nutrient does not typically provide extra benefits (7). In other words, nutrition during breastfeeding has diminishing returns after the point in which Mom is getting enough of what she needs. For example, if a breastfeeding mother eats a very high-protein diet, her milk will still contain the “normal” amount of protein found in breastmilk.
Fat is one exception to this principle. Maternal diet actually does change the quality (but not the quantity) of fat in breast milk. Moms who eat more long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs) – a category of fatty acid helps babies’ brains develop – will have more of these beneficial fats in their milk (7). Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids (chia seeds, flax seeds, and soybeans) are an example of a LCPUFA.
Nutrients in a Vegan Diet
Vegan diets are jam-packed with vital nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, phytochemicals (like antioxidants), fiber, magnesium, and potassium.
On the other hand, the diet is low in nutrients that are abundant in animal-based foods. Vitamin D, vitamin B-12, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, calcium, iodine, and iron are examples (8).
Because breastfeeding (not to mention the pregnancy beforehand) significantly increases mom’s nutritional needs, breastfeeding moms can benefit from being really intentional during these phases. Ensuring that Mom gets what she needs ensures that the breastfed baby does, as well.
Nutrients to Focus On While Breastfeeding + Vegan
These are the nutrients that breastfeeding vegans need to be most conscious about:
- Why? “Calorie” describes chemical energy we get from the food that we eat. Making milk requires a significant amount of calories, which is why breastfeeding mothers often feel ravenous! Evidence is mixed regarding what happens if breastfeeding moms under-eat. Some studies show no change in milk supply, while others show a decrease (9). From my experience working with moms, inadequate calorie intake does appear to lead to a drop in milk supply.
- Where vegans can find it: Healthy foods that are “energy-dense” tend to contain fats. Think avocados, nuts, coconut, olive oil, and dark chocolate. Feel free to expand beyond fats, though, and keep yourself nourished with whatever foods make you feel good! This also means eating frequently. Keep snacks in your diaper bag and near your favorite nursing spot so that you’ve got a reliable supply.
- Why? Protein serves as the building block for both Mom and Baby’s body cells. Breastfeeding moms need extra protein to make protein-rich milk that helps their babies grow. Some scientists think breastfeeding women need 10% more protein (about 5 extra g/day) (8), while other scientists say that mom needs as much as 25 g/day extra (10). For reference, the average non-breastfeeding female needs about 40-50 g protein per day. If you’re curious about your own protein needs, the USDA has a fun calculator tool.
- Where vegans can find it: Beans, grains, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, soy, and pseudograins (buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth) all offer protein. If you eat a variety of plant foods daily, you’ll still obtain every amino acid that you would from an animal-inclusive diet. It’s a myth that you need to “combine” protein sources in one meal (8).
- If you’re still not getting enough protein, there are many plant-based protein powders popping up on the market for supplementation. Just be sure to buy from a reputable brand: ideally, one that is certified from a third-party like NSF.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Why? Omega-3 fatty acids help build a baby’s brain. Some research shows a relationship between higher omega-3 content in milk and better infant/child IQ scores (7). Omega-3’s are also anti-inflammatory, which helps promote overall health in both Mom and Baby.
- Where vegans can find it: Unfortunately, the omega-3 fatty acids that are most easily “usable” to the body (EPA and DHA) are only found in animal foods like fish (11). However, eating an ample amount of omega-3’s through plant sources like flax seeds, flax oil, chia seeds, and walnuts offers the precursor omega-3 (ALA) for brain-building fatty acids. Aim for 2+ servings per day if you’re vegan and breastfeeding. Algae-based supplements are an alternative for EPA and DHA, the more bioavailable form of omega-3’s (8).
- Why? This vitamin helps infants absorb calcium to build bones and may also play a role in immune system health. Families are usually advised to give their baby a vitamin D supplement while breastfeeding. That’s not because breastmilk is naturally low in vitamin D – it’s because moms are typically deficient in vitamin D. If you have normal vitamin D levels, your breastmilk will, too. However, many women are deficient and it’s not worth risking the baby getting enough enough of this crucial nutrient (7, 12). People who are vegan and breastfeeding are at even higher risk of low vitamin D.
- Where vegans can find it: Vitamin D naturally occurs in very few foods, most of which are of animal origin (like fatty fish and eggs). Vegans can obtain vitamin D through fortified foods (orange juice and non-dairy milk, for example) and in small amounts from mushrooms. Mild sun exposure for mom and older babies also helps the body make its own Vitamin D (13).
- Why? Infants need vitamin B12 for their developing nervous system. B12 helps make red blood cells and DNA in both moms and babies. Vegan moms are susceptible to having milk with low B12 levels because B12 mostly occurs in animal foods (4, 7). This one is super critical while vegan and breastfeeding!
- Where vegans can find it: Vegans should supplement with vitamin B12 by either taking a vitamin or using fortified foods (like non-dairy milks) (7). Nutritional yeast is a fortified food that offers tons of vitamin B12 as well as a taste reminiscent of cheese.
- Why? Both Mom and Baby need calcium for strong bones plus a variety of other body functions, like muscle contraction and nerve signaling (14).
- Where vegans can find it: Chinese cabbage, kale, broccoli, mineral water, and fortified foods all offer calcium. Certain natural compounds in plant foods (like oxalic acid in spinach and phytic acid in whole grains) can interfere with calcium absorption. Supplementation can be a helpful way to ensure you’re getting enough calcium even with a plant-rich diet (14).
- Why? Iodine is part of our thyroid hormones and plays a role in metabolism. While it’s rare to be iodine deficient in Western countries, iodine needs increase during pregnancy and lactation (15).
- Where vegans can find it: Animal foods are the main source of iodine, which is why this nutrient is tricky for vegans. However, people living in the US can easily get enough through iodized salt, If you’re using raw sea salt, you might consider switching over. Seaweed is also a great source of iodine for plant-based breastfeeding moms.
- Why? Iron makes up our red blood cells. It’s not uncommon for Moms to become iron-deficient during pregnancy as they make more RBCs to support the fetus. Infants and children are also at risk of iron deficiency because they grow rapidly (16).
- Where vegans can find it: Iron is more “bioavailable” (usable by the body) from animal sources. But, plenty of plant foods do contain iron, like white beans, dark chocolate, lentils, spinach, tofu, kidney beans, chickpeas, and tomatoes. Because iron is less available from plants, it’s helpful to consistently incorporate iron-rich plants daily. Eating iron alongside fruits or vegetables rich in vitamin C can help increase its absorption (17).
- Why? Both pregnancy and lactation can deplete moms’ zinc stores , so it’s extra important to make sure your bases are covered with this mineral. Moreover, just like with calcium and iron, many plant foods have phytic acid which can lower zinc absorption (18).
- Where vegans can find it: Focus on foods like fortified cereals/drinks, kidney beans, chickpeas, cashews, pumpkin seeds, almonds, oatmeal, etc.
A Sample Day: Vegan Meals & Snacks for Breastfeeding
Let’s put this all together – what might your day look like?
- Breakfast: Oatmeal + chia seeds + sliced figs + fortified non-dairy milk
- Snack: Trail mix (dried fruits + mixed nuts + coconut flakes)
- Lunch: Tempeh tacos with avocado, Chinese cabbage slaw, salsa, and tortillas
- Snack: Smoothie (fortified non-dairy milk + banana + cocoa powder + nut butter)
- Snack: Seaweed crisps + cashews
- Dinner: Meat-free chili (variety of beans, tomatoes, seasonings) + a side of cornbread
- Snack: Dark chocolate-covered almonds
Bottom Line for the Vegan Breastfeeding Mamas
- Eat ENOUGH!
- Eat as wide a variety of plant foods as possible from all of the food groups. That includes grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts/seeds, fruits, oils, etc.
- Strongly consider supplementing with vitamin B12 and vitamin D. For vitamin D, the need to supplement is even greater if you live farther North or have a darker complexion.
- Maybe consider supplementing the minerals calcium, iron, zinc
If you’re looking for further, individualized guidance about your eating while breastfeeding, schedule a session with me! We’ve got plenty to discuss.