Vegetarian Diet and Breastfeeding

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated October 13, 2013.

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Is a Vegetarian Diet safe while breastfeeding?

Yes, a vegetarian diet can be very healthy and completely compatible with breastfeeding. Extremely restrictive forms of vegetarianism may need a Vitamin B12 supplement.

Human milk is unique and amazing and, unless a mother is severely malnourished, the very best option for her baby.  Breast milk is more than just nutrition but a living substance that helps a baby fight illness, mature his gastrointestinal tract, and program his genetic growth and development.

Babies who are not breastfed have increased chances of developing cancer, asthma, allergies, obesity, diabetes, Crohn’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, autoimmune diseases, and more.  Breast milk benefits don’t just last while an infant is breastfeeding; they impact her health over the course of her life!

Just as breast milk is the perfect food for all human babies, there are many maternal diets that are completely compatible with breastfeeding, including a vegetarian diet.

Types of Vegetarian Diets

Fruitarian: Eats only fruits, nuts, honey, and olive oil.

Lacto vegetarian: Eat all plant proteins (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes) as well as dairy.

Lacto-ovo vegetarian: (Often just referred to as “vegetarian”) Consume all foods as lacto vegetarians but also eat eggs.

Macrobiotic: Emphasizes grains, fermented soup, and vegetables (especially sea vegetables) with limited amounts of beans, condiments (especially fermented), fruit, nuts, seeds, and seafood.  Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy are typically avoided.  There are more restrictive forms of this diet with the most restrictive advocating simply brown rice and water.

Semi vegetarian: Similar to lacto-ovo vegetarians but also include poultry and seafood.

Vegan: No animal products (including no dairy or eggs)

Are there any nutritional concerns with a Vegetarian Diet and breastfed infants?

There are no vitamin deficiency concerns with vegetarian diets that include at least some form of animal protein.

As with any diet, whole foods closest to their natural state with minimal processing, additives, preservatives, dyes, etc. are always best. A wide variety of fresh, seasonal vegetables provide an excellent source of vitamins and minerals.  Vegetarians who do not consume any animal protein should be aware of the following:

Vitamin D
Many adults today are Vitamin D deficient.

Vitamin D is synthesized in our bodies through sunlight.  Due to covering our bodies with clothes or sunscreen, living in extreme northern or southern climates, and/or having lifestyles that keep us inside much of the day deficiency in this vitamin is an increasing issue among adults and children.  Cod Liver Oil is a rich natural source for this Vitamin, but direct sunlight is the best source.

Milk can be fortified with Vitamin D so vegetarians who do not consume dairy will need to be aware of the possibility for lower levels of Vitamin D.  Hale (2012) states that supplementing a mother whose Vitamin D levels are low with doses of 4000 IU/day can effectively increase breast milk levels of Vitamin D.1

Vitamin B12
This vitamin can be low in women who do not consume any animal products.  Vegans, fruitarians, and restrictive macrobiotic adherents consuming no animal protein should take care to ensure they are getting enough B12.  Nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, soy milk, and/or a vitamin supplement are all options.

Infants with a Vitamin B12 deficiency can display symptoms of failure to thrive, lethargy, hypotonia, development delays or regression, megaloblastic anemia, cerebral atrophy, and/or irreversible neurological damage.  It is recommended that infants of vegan mothers be given vitamin supplements from birth.2

Zinc
Very restrictive maternal diets may lead to a zinc deficiency in breastfed babies.  Symptoms of zinc deficiency include growth retardation, loss of appetite, and impaired immune function.

Protein
In vegan children, once solids are introduced, their protein needs may be slightly higher.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Hale, T.W. (2012) Medications and Mother’s Milk. Amarillo, TX: Hale Publishing, p. 1143.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009) Vitamin B12 Deficiency. Accessed October 13, 2013 via www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/b12/summary.html
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