Have you ever wondered if your vegan diet is healthy while breastfeeding your baby? As a new mom, it’s easy to start second-guessing yourself as you only want the best for your newborn. One of the questions we get asked a lot is “can you eat vegan while breastfeeding?”
Before diving into this topic, let’s preface by saying that diet choices are very individual. What works for you may not be the best option for another mama. In regards to a vegan diet, we understand that many moms choose this diet based on ethical and environmental reasons. We know how incredibly important these values are to some mamas, so please be respectful as this article is meant to enlighten mamas on the topic of nutrition and a vegan diet for breastfeeding moms.
Can you eat vegan while breastfeeding?
The short answer is, yes.
A well-planned vegan diet while breastfeeding can fully support a perfectly healthy baby and mama. This is fully supported by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Their position paper states that a “well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.”
In addition, following a plant-based diet during pregnancy can be protective against the development of preeclampsia, obesity, DNA mutation and reduce the risk pediatric diseases, such as diabetes, neural tube defects, orofacial clefts, and some pediatric tumors. It can be reassuring for a mama to know that she can continue eating a vegan diet throughout her pregnancy and while breastfeeding postpartum.
Nutrient Deficiencies While Breastfeeding on a Vegan Diet
While a vegan diet can be healthy for both mom and baby, there are some nutrients in a vegan diet that need extra attention. Many of these nutrients require extra attention by anyone following a vegan diet, but especially by breastfeeding mamas because the nutrient needs increase significantly. These nutrients include:
While a mother’s body does an amazing job making sure that her breastmilk has the proper ratio of the macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrates and is full of the necessary vitamins and minerals for her baby, this can come at the cost for the mother. This is especially true for calcium.
If a mom is not getting enough calcium while breastfeeding, her body becomes depleted at the expense of her baby. Her body will draw on calcium from her bones, releasing it into the bloodstream. Her kidneys will also secrete less calcium in her urine so that more of the calcium is available for her breast milk.
Unlike calcium, when a mother doesn’t consume enough DHA, B12, iodine, iron and zinc from her diet it affects the quality of her breast milk. Since the body does not store or make enough of these nutrients, it’s essential to get these nutrients through food or supplementation.
Important Nutrients While Breastfeeding On a Vegan Diet
Protein is essential for breastfeeding mothers because it helps repair cells, maintains muscle mass and keeps blood sugar stable. Protein helps keep you satisfied after a meal, which can be an issue during breastfeeding since breastfeeding often increases appetite.
A healthy and well-balanced breastfeeding diet recommends the nursing mother to intake an extra 15 grams of protein per day. The general rule of thumb is to take your current weight, divide it in half, and add 15 to get the appropriate amount of protein your body needs while breastfeeding.
Protein requirements can be easily met on a vegan diet. Incorporating protein-rich foods at each meal and snack can be an easy way to help ensure you are getting enough protein throughout the day.
Top sources of protein: beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, peanuts, nuts, nut butters, seeds and seed butters.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that is important to include in a breastfeeding diet. DHA encourages healthy brain development in your newborns.
DHA is typically found in fatty fish like salmon, making it much harder to get on a vegan diet. There are other types of omega-3 fatty acids that the body can convert to DHA. However, the conversion rate is extremely low. This conversion rate can be insufficient to meet the DHA requirements during pregnancy and lactation.
In order to meet the increased needs while breastfeeding, it’s recommended that breastfeeding mothers take a supplement of at least 200mg of DHA from algae-based sources.
Top sources of DHA: microalgae DHA supplementation
All breastfeeding mothers need at least 1000 mg of calcium per day. During lactation 300-400 mg calcium per day is transferred into breast milk. During this process, a mother's calcium levels get depleted as it gets passed to your baby. In the initial stages of nursing, a mother loses 3–5% of her bone density. Although bone loss will restore after weaning, it is important to maintain calcium levels to keep up with your nursing schedule.
There are vegan sources of calcium, however, it can be challenging to meet the recommended 1000mg per day through only plant-based foods. Taking a prenatal can help ensure you are meeting your daily calcium requirements.
Top food sources of calcium: fortified soymilk and other plant milks, calcium-set tofu, fortified orange juice, figs, dark green vegetables (broccoli, kale, turnip greens, bok choy), almonds, Brazil nuts, tahini, chickpeas/garbanzo beans and navy beans
B-12 is important for all vegans, especially while breastfeeding. The requirement for B-12 is 2.8 mcg which is slightly increased compared to 2.6 mcg while pregnant and 2.4 mcg for non-pregnant or non-lactating women.
B-12 is necessary for creating new cells and DNA, as well as protecting nerve cells. Low levels of vitamin B12 have been linked to brain development impairment and neurological issues. B12 passes from mama into breast milk and to baby. This means it’s essential that a mother has to have enough B-12 in order for there to be a sufficient amount of B12 to pass on to baby.
A sufficient amount of vitamin B12 cannot be found in plant foods. While there are vegan foods that are fortified with B-12, it’s recommended to incorporate a B12 supplement daily to ensure the daily needs for mom and baby are met.
Top sources of B-12: 10 mcg B12 from supplementation, vitamin B12 from fortified foods such as fortified cereals, fortified soymilk and other plant milks and fortified nutritional yeast
Vitamin D helps the body better absorb and balance calcium and is needed to support healthy bone development. It’s essential in breast milk to prevent rickets, a condition that causes weak or deformed bones.
The recommended daily intake of vitamin D is 600 IU. To meet a mother’s needs while breastfeeding it’s necessary to get vitamin D through sunlight, fortified foods and supplementation. The best source of vitamin D is sunlight. But because both mothers and babies aren’t usually exposed to sunlight for a while post-birth, vitamin D levels are typically low. There also aren’t enough food sources of vitamin D that can provide adequate amounts so daily supplementation is required.
It’s important to mention that breast milk alone does not provide infants with an adequate amount of vitamin D. Shortly after birth, most infants will need an additional source of vitamin D. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfed and partially breastfed infants be supplemented with 400 IU per day of vitamin D beginning in the first few days of life. Otherwise, a breastfeeding mom can take 6400 IU per day, to provide enough vitamin D through her milk. It is best to talk to your healthcare provider to figure out which option is best for you and your baby.
Top sources of vitamin D: daily supplement containing vitamin D, sunlight, fortified soymilk or other plant milks
It’s important to incorporate iodine into your well-balanced, breastfeeding diet. For nursing mothers, iodine aids in the thyroid function, allowing proper development of your newborn’s brain.
The daily recommendation for breastfeeding moms is 290 mcg compared to 220 mcg while pregnant and 150 mcg for non-pregnant or lactating women. For decades, food was often cooked using iodized salt. However, with the recent shift in food and health culture, the use of iodized salt has been replaced with gourmet sea salts. These salts may contain trace minerals but they are not fortified with iodine or contain enough to meet daily needs.
Breastfeeding mamas should opt for fortified salt or ensure their prenatal vitamin includes at least 150 mcg of iodine. Seaweed is an excellent vegan souce of iodine. However, it’s important to pay attention to the amount the seaweed you’re eating because it can be extremely easy to get too much.
Top sources of iodine: iodized salt and seaweed
It’s not unheard of for nursing mothers to become anemic. Anemia often stems from the amount of blood loss during delivery, which can severely lower your iron levels. As for your infant, iron levels are believed to be adequate enough to support your baby for the first four months of life. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants who are exclusively breastfed will need an iron supplement of 1 mg of iron for each kilogram of body weight per day.
The iron requirement for breastfeeding mamas is significantly lower than during pregnancy and for non-pregnant or lactating women. Breastfeeding requires 9 mg of iron while 27 mg is required while pregnant and 18 mg for non-pregnant or non-lactating women. This is because most breastfeeding women are not menstruating. Once a breastfeeding mama regains her period, her needs return to those of a non-pregnant or non-lactating woman.
There are many plant-based sources of iron. However, their absorption is greatly increased by eating foods containing vitamin C along with foods containing iron.
Top sources of iron: lentils, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, cashews, pumpkin seeds, tahini, tomato sauce, kale, swiss chard, collard greens, dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereal
Zinc is an important nutrient while breastfeeding because your baby needs zinc for growth and development. If your breast milk doesn’t have the needed zinc, your baby won’t be able to consume zinc. During lactation, your body naturally increases its need for zinc, and it improves its absorption of zinc. But, even with improved absorption, consuming enough zinc daily important!
The recommended daily amount of zinc is 12 mg for breastfeeding mamas compared to 11 mg while pregnant and 8 mg for non-pregnant or lactating women. Phytates, which are commonly found in plant foods, bind to zinc and reduce its absorption. Some researchers have suggested that this increases the zinc needs of vegetarians by up to 50%. That being said, protein increases zinc absorption as well as soaking and sprouting grains, nuts, seeds and legumes before eating them.
Top sources of zinc: chickpeas, lentils, tofu, cashews, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, hemp seeds and quinoa
Nutrients You May Need to Supplement While Breastfeeding
To ensure you are getting enough nutrients as a vegan breastfeeding, you may want to consider supplementing your diet. By supplementing vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are more difficult to get through your diet, it acts as an insurance policy for you and your baby.
Many doctors recommend continuing your prenatal vitamin while breastfeeding to ensure you are getting adequate amounts of the necessary nutrients your baby gets through breast milk. You may also want to consider taking additional vitamin D and DHA.
Based on your vitamin D levels additional supplementation may be necessary to ensure you have adequate amounts for you and your baby. However, the only way to accurately know your levels is to have them tested.
Many prenatal supplements do not contain DHA. Even if your prenatal does contain DHA you may want to consider additional supplementation to ensure you are getting enough of this omega-3 for your baby’s brain development but also your own omega-3 needs.
Here at Majka, we understand the importance of quality nutrition while breastfeeding. We also know it can be incredibly difficult to find a quality postnatal vitamin that contains all your needed vitamins and nutrients, contains wholesome ingredients, and is safe to take while breastfeeding. That’s why we created our Nourishing Lactation Protein Powder. Our Nourishing Lactation Protein Powder is specifically formulated to act as a nutritional supplement that can be used as a postnatal vitamin.
Is breast milk vegan?
Yes, breast milk is vegan. It may surprise you how often this question comes up. Since humans are mammals and vegans don’t get any products derived from animals, it makes sense some mamas have this question.
That being said, a human mother produces milk for the sole purpose of nourishing her baby. The woman's body is so designed to support the life of your new baby providing it with all the nutrients it needs. Breastfeeding is the natural way to support your baby so is nothing morally wrong with feeding your child as nature intended.
Vegan Foods to Avoid While Breastfeeding
Mamas, you can feel good knowing most of the foods you need to avoid while pregnant is perfectly fine to eat while breastfeeding. That being said, most of the foods that need to be avoided while pregnant are not vegan. These consist of soft cheese, runny yolks, deli meat and raw meat and seafood. However, it’s important for pregnant mothers to avoid unpasteurized juices, unwashed fruits and vegetables and alcohol.
The only food (or in this case, beverage!) that a vegan mom needs to limit or remove from their diet while nursing is: alcohol. There is no level of alcohol that’s safe for a baby to consume through breast milk, so be sure that alcohol is completely out of your system before feeding your little one.
There is no evidence that acidic foods, spicy foods and cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower are more likely than other foods to bother babies. Every baby is different so unless there is an obvious reaction to a certain food, you don’t need to cut out foods from your diet. In regards to allergies, there is now evidence that recommends breastfeeding mothers to not avoid or limit major allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish) to reduce the risk of allergies in your baby. Despite older researcher, it’s now thought that by introducing these foods through breast milk may cause your baby’s immune system to develop a tolerance for them. Complete avoidance or delayed introduction may prevent your baby’s immune system from learning that these foods are not harmful.
The only other food to minimize is caffeine. While nursing, it's recommended to consume less than 300mg of caffeine a day, which gives you a bit of wiggle room if you find it challenging to eliminate entirely. So while guidelines suggest less than 300mg. It’s best to spread out that 300mg dose in meaningful ways rather than in one hit. Have a cup of coffee in the morning and a little dark chocolate in the afternoon. If you find yourself craving a warm coffee mid-day, try replacing your coffee with one of these delicious coffee alternatives.
Vegan Breastfeeding Meal Examples
This is an example of what a typical day may look like breastfeeding on a vegan diet. However, please know that calorie and nutrient needs are very individual. You may need more or less food depending on numerous factors, some of which include activity level, how many babies you’re breastfeeding and how far along postpartum.
Breastfast: Ultimate Lactation Smoothie + DHA supplement
Snack: Sliced banana with peanut butter and hemp seed
Lunch: Tofu scramble with sprouted toast, steamed broccoli and a drizzle of tahini
Snack: Two Majka Lactation Bites
Dinner: Lentil and Quinoa Bowl
Snack: Dark Chocolate square and fresh raspberries
As a mother, we know you want the best for your baby. It can feel comforting to know that a well-planned vegan diet while breastfeeding is perfectly healthy for you and your baby. That being said, it’s important to pay close attention to make sure you are getting enough protein, DHA, calcium, B-12, vitamin D, iodine, iron and zinc. You can make sure you are getting enough of these nutrients by eating a well-balanced diet and taking a daily prenatal and DHA supplement.
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For more information and tips on motherhood and breastfeeding, be sure to follow us at @lovemajka #lovemajka #fuelingmotherhood