The WHO recommends that infants under 6 months old should be exclusively breastfed. This is because breast milk provides everything that the baby needs to grow and develop. It also contains molecules that protect against many illnesses. The contents of breast milk are somewhat influenced by the diet of the breastfeeding woman, therefore it’s important to lead a healthy diet to optimise the breast milk. Consuming a healthy diet and making sure you are taking in all the necessary nutrients while breastfeeding will benefit both you and the baby.
The vegan diet is comprised of plant-based food including fruit and vegetables, grains, seeds and nuts, and it excludes any food derived from animal sources. It has become much more popular in recent years due to evidence suggesting that a plant-based diet may prevent heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer while also benefitting the environment.1
For vegan women, it may seem daunting to breastfeed, as questions have been raised regarding the nutritional value of breast milk from a vegan woman. However, studies have shown that vegan mothers can produce breast milk of similar nutritional value to non-vegan mothers.2 Having said that, more attention to the diet is required, and perhaps supplementation of certain nutrients, therefore it is important that you are aware of key nutrients if you are considering following a vegan diet whilst breastfeeding.
Keep on reading to find out how you can optimise your vegan diet and the nutritional value of breast milk whilst breastfeeding.
As for everyone, it is important to eat a balanced and varied diet. Breastfeeding women need approximately 500 more calories than a non-breastfeeding woman in a day.3 Bear in mind that this also depends on your height, weight, age and your baby’s size.
Ensure you are having at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. This can include fresh, tinned, frozen or dried fruits and vegetables as well as up to 150ml of unsweetened fruit juice.
Eating foods high in starch can keep you fuller for longer. These include wholemeal bread, rice, pasta and potatoes. Eating lots of fibre can help with constipation and bowel problems. You can find fibre in wholemeal foods, cereal, pulses and fruit and vegetables.
Eating healthy carbohydrates gives you energy and supports the baby’s growth and development. Eating complex carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits and vegetables is much better than eating refined carbohydrates like non-wholegrain foods and sugar.
Unsaturated fats are important in the development of the brain and nervous system. Some well-known sources of healthy fats are avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds.
Whilst breastfeeding, protein intake must be adequate to maintain your own muscle mass, but also to provide enough protein to the baby, therefore, protein requirements are slightly higher than normal. Contrary to what a lot of people think, sufficient protein is easily obtained through a plant-based diet. Great vegan sources of protein include:
- Lentils & beans
- Nuts & seeds
- Vegetables such as broccoli
Calcium is important as it is involved in blood circulation and has a major role in the functioning of muscles and nerves. More calcium is required when breastfeeding than in non-breastfeeding individuals, so it is recommended to eat foods rich in calcium. It can be found in bok choy (a cabbage), calcium-enriched tofu, soy sauce, sesame seeds and more. These foods can provide even more calcium than a cup of milk. For example, half a cup of ground sesame seeds, which can be added to smoothies, batter or sprinkled on top of dishes, contains double the amount of calcium than a cup of milk.
Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal products. It is important in the production of red blood cells and the development of the brain. A lot of vegans will be already taking a B12 supplement, and therefore your levels may be adequate. Speak to your GP regarding taking a B12 supplement and consider eating foods rich in vitamin B12. These include fortified nutritional yeast flakes (which taste great sprinkled on salads or in pastas), fermented soybean products and seaweed.
Iron is usually only a cause for concern if you have been anaemic during your pregnancy. Eating foods rich in iron can reduce the risk of anaemia and give you some more energy. Foods such as leafy green vegetables and beans are good sources of iron. Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron, so you could also eat more foods such as broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes and citrus fruits, which contain a lot of vitamin C.
Vitamin D is a hormone produced when sunlight is absorbed by the skin. It is important as it controls the levels of calcium in the body and supports the immune system. Our bodies are able to produce lots of vitamin D by spending a little time in the sun. However, nowadays we don’t spend as much time outdoors, and most people wear sunscreen which inhibits our ability to absorb sunlight. Everyone in the UK should consider taking a vitamin D supplement of 10 mcg daily. This is because you are unlikely to get enough vitamin D from sunlight outside of the summer months. From April to the end of September, most people will get enough vitamin D from being outdoors and from a balanced diet. Speak to your GP about the need to supplement with vitamin D.
Zinc is important on a cellular level and is involved in the immune system and healing wounds. It is easy to get enough zinc through a plant-based diet. Whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts, and leafy green vegetables have a high zinc content.
More iodine is required when breastfeeding compared to when not breastfeeding. Iodine is important in the development of the brain and is required for the production of thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones are involved with many different systems of the body. The main sources of iodine are fish, milk and dairy products, however, some plant-based milk substitutes have iodine added to them. Although seaweed contains high amounts of iodine, the quantities vary greatly, and it is therefore not considered a reliable source. It is possible to have too much iodine, especially when consuming kelp and seaweed. If you have thyroid problems or are following a vegan diet, consider speaking with a health professional before increasing your iodine intake.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for breastfeeding women and babies as they help prevent heart disease and also help the baby’s nervous system develop. Oily fish is the best source of omega-3, however, there are vegan alternatives. Chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and walnuts all contain good levels of omega-3. It is also possible to get additional omega-3 with microalgae supplements. Speak to a health professional about getting enough omega-3 into your diet.
Water and hydration
All breastfeeding women need to drink more liquids due to extra water being used in the production of breast milk. It is a good idea to drink a big glass of water each time you breastfeed.
Breastfeeding is extremely important for infants and they should be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of their life. The contents of breastmilk are to a certain degree influenced by the nursing woman’s diet. Studies have shown that breast milk from a vegan woman can be just as nutritious as breast milk from a non-vegan woman. More consideration is necessary for vegan women on how to obtain all the required nutrients.
A balanced and varied diet is essential for all breastfeeding mothers, who need to consume around 500 extra calories each day. A good vegan diet should include a wide range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Getting enough protein into the diet is vital to maintain the woman’s muscle mass and to support the baby’s growth. Protein is easily obtained from foods such as lentils, tofu, quinoa, seeds and nuts.
Calcium and vitamin B12 may be slightly harder to obtain from plant-based foods, but it is possible. Vegan sources of calcium include bok choy, calcium-enriched tofu and sesame seeds. Vitamin B12 can be found in fortified nutritional yeast flakes, fermented soybeans and seaweed. You can find plant-based milk fortified with iodine, which is a more reliable source of iodine than seaweed. Omega-3 fatty acids are present in various different types of seeds and walnuts.
In conclusion, with proper planning and attention to essential nutrients, it is possible for vegan women to produce milk comparable in nutritional value to non-vegan women. It is essential to speak to a healthcare professional for advice before making changes to your diet and before starting supplements whilst breastfeeding, as certain foods and supplements, may be suitable for one person but not for another.
Find out more from the National Breastfeeding Helpline website.
- Sebastiani G, Herranz Barbero A, Borrás-Novell C, Alsina Casanova M, Aldecoa-Bilbao V, Andreu-Fernández V, et al. The effects of vegetarian and vegan diet during pregnancy on the health of mothers and offspring. Nutrients [Internet]. 2019 Mar 6 [cited 2023 Aug 2];11(3):557. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/3/557
- Karcz K, Królak-Olejnik B. Vegan or vegetarian diet and breast milk composition - a systematic review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2021;61(7):1081–98. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32319307/
- Dewey KG. Energy and protein requirements during lactation. Annu Rev Nutr. 1997;17:19–36. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9240917/