Breastfeeding on a Vegetarian, Vegan, or Other Diet

Healthy Eating Tips for Semi-Vegetarians, Pescetarians, Vegetarians, and Vegans

Hand with pen making a check mark in a box that says Vegan
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A breastfeeding mother can have a vegetarian, vegan, or another similar type of diet as long as she gets adequate amounts of vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc. There are no special dietary precautions that need to be taken if the above nutritional needs are met, however, unless the diet is varied and includes fortified foods that deliver the proper dose of these nutrients, some dietary supplementation may be necessary.

How Does a Mother’s Diet Affect Her Milk?

Mature breastmilk contains water, fat, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals, and over 20 different amino acids. It's important to understand that even if the mother is not getting adequate amounts of some of these nutrients herself, that her breastmilk would still contain exactly the nutritional and protective components needed by her baby.

For example, even if a breastfeeding mother was not getting enough calcium in her diet, her breastmilk would still have enough amounts for her baby. This is because a nursing mother's body breaks down her bones and releases calcium into the bloodstream, a process known as calcium resorption. The kidneys also secrete less calcium in the urine, so that more of the mineral is available to be made into breastmilk. Ensuring that the mother is eating enough calcium-rich foods is important for her health, but will not affect the quality of her already highly nutritional breastmilk.

One of the areas that a mother's diet can affect her breastmilk, is she is deficient in nutrients that the body can not make. For example, if a breastfeeding mother is deficient in vitamin B12, her infant will also become deficient in the vitamin because the human body does not make vitamin B12 and can only be obtained from eating animal products. A vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to loss of energy and appetite, failure to thrive in baby, and possibly even coma. If a breastfeeding mother does not consume any animal protein whatsoever, then she will need to supplement her diet with vitamin B12 and B12 fortified foods to prevent her baby, and herself from becoming deficient in this vitamin.

Does Your Plant-Based or Meat-Free Diet Require Supplementation?

If you've been following a vegetarian or vegan diet for a while, you may already know how to get all the nutrients you need without eating any meat or other animal products.

If you are unsure about whether you are getting adequate amounts of protein, calories, vitamins, and minerals, talk to your doctor, a dietitian or a nutritionist about your eating habits to be sure you are getting enough nutrition for you and your baby. They can order specific tests to check your body's nutrient levels.

Specific types of diets require different supplements. Here are some common vegetarian diets and some of the possible nutrients they may provide or lack:

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian

Lacto-ovo is the most common type of vegetarian diet. A lacto-ovo vegetarian does not eat any meat or fish but does eat eggs and dairy products. Since eggs and dairy products contain protein, vitamins, and minerals, you may not need to take any additional vitamin supplements if you follow this type of diet.

Lacto Vegetarian

A lacto vegetarian diet is a plant-based diet that includes dairy products, but not eggs. Many dairy products are fortified with vitamin D. They are also an excellent source of protein and calcium. The addition of dairy products into your diet gives you the vitamin B12 that you need and makes it easier to get enough calories each day.

Ovo Vegetarian

An ovo vegetarian eats eggs but not meats or dairy products. Eggs contain many nutrients. They are also a good source of protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, riboflavin, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Semi-Vegetarian

A semi-vegetarian has a diet that is mostly plant-based with the occasional addition of meat and other animal products. If you are a semi-vegetarian, and you eat a well-balanced diet, you should be able to get all the nutrients and calories that you need each day without supplementation.

Pescetarian

A pescetarian diet is similar to a vegetarian diet because pescetarians do not eat beef, pork or poultry. It differs from a vegetarian diet, however, because it includes fish. Fish is an excellent source of protein. It also contains many vitamins, minerals, and the essential fatty acid omega-3.

If You Follow a Vegan Diet

A vegan diet is based solely on plant products, and a vegan doesn't eat any animal foods at all. A vegan diet is a purely plant-based diet without meat, fish, dairy or eggs.

While a vegan diet is healthy, some vitamins and nutrients are more difficult to get when you eat a strictly plant-based diet. Listed below are the nutrients you require and some of the foods that you can eat to get those nutrients, and the supplements you may have to take to fill in the gaps:

Calories and Protein

Most plant foods are low in calories, so you need to make sure that you eat enough to meet your daily calorie needs. Protein is also very important. You can get enough protein each day by eating beans, lentils, rice, nuts, nut butter, whole grain bread, and dark green vegetables.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that is only found in animal products. If you're vegan, you may not be getting enough of this important vitamin. So, to prevent a vitamin B12 deficiency, you can use products fortified with B12 such as soy foods, meat substitutes, and brewer's yeast. But even with the addition of B12 fortified foods into your diet, it's likely that you will still have to take a supplement while you are nursing. Be sure to discuss this with your doctor. Your breastfed baby may also need Vitamin B12 supplements, talk to your child's healthcare provider about your diet.

Calcium

Without dairy products, you will need to get calcium from other sources. You can find calcium in many vegetables, especially dark leafy greens. You can also get calcium from beans, fortified orange juice and soy products, or through a calcium supplement.

Vitamin D

If you spend a little time outdoors each day, you may be able to get enough vitamin D. However, excess sun exposure can be dangerous. Plus, depending on your skin tone and the climate in which you live, the sun may not be a dependable source of vitamin D. You should talk to your doctor about your specific situation, and whether or not you need to take a vitamin D supplement. Your breastfed baby may also need Vitamin D supplements. Talk to your child's healthcare provider about your diet.

DHA

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 essential fatty acid that is found mostly in fish, is needed for the healthy development of your baby's brain and eyes. Plant sources of omega-3, such as flaxseed, hempseed, and walnuts, contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Your body converts ALA into DHA, but only in small amounts. Talk to your doctor about taking a daily omega-3 vitamin, especially while you are pregnant and breastfeeding.

Iodine

Iodine is important for the health of your thyroid gland. Using iodized salt or eating seaweed can provide you with iodine. If you don't eat these products, supplements are available. Be sure to talk to your doctor about how much iodine you get in your diet. You don't want to get too little iodine, but you don't want to get too much, either.

Iron

Get enough iron from whole grains, tofu, mushrooms, nuts, leafy green vegetables, iron-fortified bread, and cereal. Eating foods high in vitamin C along with these foods will help you absorb more iron.

Zinc

Many plants contain zinc, but the zinc from plants is not absorbed as well as the zinc from animal products. So, you have to eat more foods that are rich in zinc each day. You can get zinc by eating nuts, seeds, beans, grains, and leafy green vegetables.

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