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The Vegetarian Breastfeeding Mother

Mel Wolk
St. Peters, Missouri, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 33 No. 3, June-July 1997, p. 69

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time.

Ed. Note: From time to time, Leaders receive questions about diet from vegetarian mothers. The BREASTFEEDING ANSWER BOOK is a helpful resource.

Vegetarian diets include several variations:

Vegan - no flesh foods (red meat, poultry, fish), milk products or eggs. Ovo-lacto vegetarian - no flesh foods but milk products and eggs are allowed. Ovo vegetarian - no flesh foods or milk products, but eggs are allowed. Lacto vegetarian - no flesh foods or eggs, but milk products are allowed.

Vegetarian diets that contain no animal protein may require vitamin B12 supplementation to avoid a deficiency in mother or baby. In babies, symptoms may include loss of appetite, regression in motor development, lethargy, muscle atrophy, vomiting or blood abnormalities. Mothers of babies with symptoms may or may not exhibit symptoms themselves.

Mothers on vegan diets who do not consume animal products do have alternatives. They can ask their health care provider about using a vitamin B12 supplement or adding fermented soybean foods and yeast (both contain some vitamin B12) to their diets. Another option would be to ask their health care provider about the need to supplement the baby with vitamin B12.

Even though one study showed vegetarian mothers tend to consume less calcium than other mothers, levels of calcium in human milk were not affected. This is believed to be caused by the fact that vegetarians consume less protein and therefore need less calcium.

Vegetarian mothers who do not consume milk or other dairy products will want to take special care to eat foods rich in calcium. One cup (227 grams) of cooked bok choy, a type of cabbage, will provide 86% of the calcium in one cup (240 ml.) Of milk. One half cup (113 grams) of ground sesame seeds contains twice as much calcium as one cup (240 ml.) of milk. Other sources of calcium include blackstrap molasses, tofu, collard greens, spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, kale, almonds and Brazil nuts.

While vegetarian mothers in the same study had low vitamin D levels, supplements are not usually recommended because most mothers and babies receive adequate vitamin D through exposure to the sun. Research suggests that women with dark skin, or those who wear traditional, enveloping clothing that allows little exposure of skin to sunlight may need to consider a vitamin D supplement for themselves or their babies.

The milk of vegetarian mothers is lower in environmental contaminants than the milk of non-vegetarian mothers. Environmental contaminants are stored mainly in fat. Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in fat than those containing animal products, so there is less transfer into human milk.

Leaders can assure vegetarian mothers that their diet should not present a problem when breastfeeding their babies.

References

Dagnelie P. et al. Nutrients and contaminants in human milk from mothers on macrobiotic and ominivorous diets. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1992; 46:355-66.

Fuhrman, J. Osteoperosis: how to get it and how to avoid it. Health Science Jan/Feb 1992; 8-11.

Kuhn, T. et al. Maternal vegan diet causing a serious infantile neurological disorder due to vitamin B12 deficiency. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1991; 150:205-08.

Lawrence, R. Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession, 4th ed. St. Louis: Mosby; 1994, pp. 104-15, 290-91, 300-02, 657.

Specker, B. Nutritional concerns of lactating women consuming vegetarian diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1994; 54(Suppl): 1182S-86S.

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