November is National Vegan Month so you may have heard more about eating a vegan diet recently. Mothers, and others, often wonder if a vegan diet is sufficient to support the nutritional needs of a breastfeeding mother and her baby. It may be useful to consider that in many parts of the world a vegan diet is the norm and mothers and babies in those cultures have been healthy for thousands of years.
Breastmilk production requires about 500 calories per day. Some of these calories come from the extra food the mother is eating and the rest come from her body’s stores created during pregnancy. All mothers should ensure that their diet includes sources of protein, calcium, vitamin B-12, vitamin D and iron.
All breastfeeding mothers need at least 1000 mg of calcium per day. Vegan mothers can get their calcium from bok choy, blackstrap molasses, tofu, collard greens, spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, kale, almonds and Brazil nuts. Enriched orange juice, soymilk, enriched soy products and calcium supplements can also help vegan mothers boost the amount of calcium in their diets.
Vitamin B-12 is primarily available from animal products. Deficiency sometimes occurs in individuals following a vegan diet. According to La Leche League, symptoms of vitamin B-12 deficiency in infants may include loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting and muscle atrophy. Fermented soybean foods and yeast are an alternative source of vitamin B-12. Breastfeeding vegan mothers should consult with a health care provider to determine whether their diet contains enough vitamin B-12 from non-animal sources. If necessary doctors can prescribe supplements for either the mother or the infant.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin important for the formation of bone and the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from the intestine. In infancy and childhood, vitamin D deficiency results in rickets, a disease marked by bone deformities. Regardless of diet most people receive the majority of their vitamin D through exposure to ultraviolet B rays in sunlight. However, during winter in northern latitudes ultraviolet B rays wavelengths are not found in sunlight due to the angle of the sun. Darker-skinned individuals require more sunlight exposure on their skin to produce sufficient vitamin D. In Canada mothers and/or babies may need vitamin D supplementation regardless of their diet.
The recommended intake of protein for nursing mothers is 65 grams per day for the first six months, and 62 grams per day between six and 12 months. A varied vegan diet that includes a range of protein sources such as soy products, beans, and grains should provide plenty of protein for breastfeeding mothers.
The iron found in breast milk is sufficient for infants throughout the first 4 to 6 to six months in healthy well-nourished mothers. Vegan mothers do not have a higher incidence of iron deficiency than do meat eaters. Dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables are especially good sources of iron, even better on a per calorie basis than meat. Iron absorption is increased markedly by eating foods containing vitamin C along with foods containing iron.
Vegan mothers can and do breastfeed. Additional information can be found here
If you have any questions about what to eat while breastfeeding, or any other breastfeeding topic, please contact a La Leche League Leader.