Breastfeeding and Vegetarian Diets

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

Breastfeeding On A Vegetarian or Vegan Diet: Nutritional Information and Tips
Can you breastfeed if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet?. Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Can You Breastfeed If You Follow A Vegetarian Or Vegan Diet?

You don't need to eat meat or animal products to breastfeed: vegetarian diets are often very healthy and full of nutrition on their own. 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. As long as you're getting enough protein, calories, vitamins and minerals, you do not have to worry about the quality of your breast milk.

However, depending on the type of vegetarian you are, you might need to take supplements for the vitamins and minerals that you may not be getting through your meals. Talk to your doctor, a dietitian or a nutritionist about your eating habits so that you can be sure you are getting enough nutrition for you and your baby.

Breastfeeding And Almost Vegetarian Diets

Semi-Vegetarian: A semi-vegetarian is not a vegetarian, but 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.

Pescetarian: This 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 — a good source of protein. It also contains many vitamins, minerals and the essential fatty acid omega-3.

Tips For Breastfeeding On Semi-Vegetarian and Pescetarian Diets:

  • Eat a variety of healthy foods.
  • Get enough protein and calories each day.
  • You should be able to get the nutrition you need without the addition of vitamins and supplements.

Breastfeeding And Vegetarian Diets

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian: This is the most common type of vegetarian.

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: This diet is a plant-based diet that includes dairy products, but not eggs. Many dairy products are fortified with vitamin D, and they're also a great source of protein and calcium. The addition of dairy products into your diet gives you the vitamin B12 that you need and also makes it easier to get enough calories each day.

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

Tips For Breastfeeding On A Vegetarian Diet

  • Get enough calories and protein each day.
  • If you eat dairy products, choose products that are fortified with Vitamin D.
  • If you eat eggs and are in good health, it is considered safe to eat one cooked egg each day.
  • Talk to your doctor about your diet to see if you need to take any additional vitamins or supplements.

Breastfeeding And The Vegan Diet

Vegan: 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 true plant-based diet without meat, fish, dairy or eggs. Eating a vegan diet is very healthy, but you have to be more careful about getting all the calories and nutrients that you need.

Tips For Breastfeeding On A Vegan Diet

  • Pay special attention to getting enough calories and protein each day. 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 is a nutrient that is only found in animal products. 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.
  • Without dairy products, you will need to get calcium from other sources. Calcium is found 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.
  • 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, and depending on your skin tone and the climate in which you live, the sun may not be a dependable source of vitamin D. Talk to your doctor about your specific situation, and whether or not you need to take a vitamin D supplement.
  • 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.
  • Get enough iron from whole grains, tofu, mushrooms, nuts, leafy green vegetables, iron-fortified breads and cereals. Eating foods high in vitamin C along with these foods will help you absorb more of the iron.
  • 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 use these products, you could take a supplement. 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.
  • Zinc is found in many plants, but the zinc from plants is not absorbed as well as the zinc found in animal products. This means that you have to eat more foods that are rich in zinc each day. Zinc can be found in nuts, seeds, beans, grains and leafy green vegetables.
  • Your breastfed baby may also need Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D supplements. Talk to your child's healthcare provider about your diet.

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics. New Mother’s Guide To Breastfeeding. Bantam Books. New York. 2011.

Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Seventh Edition.  Mosby. 2011.

The Vegetarian Resource Group. Vegetarianism in a Nutshell. VRG.org. 2013. Accessed April 26, 2013: http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/nutshell.htm#iron

United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines. Cnpp.usda.gov. 2010. Accessed April 29, 2013: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/PolicyDoc/Chapter3.pdf

United States Department of Agriculture. Tips for Vegetarians. ChooseMyPlate.gov. Accessed April 26, 2013: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/healthy-eating-tips/tips-for-vegetarian.html

Whitney, E., Hamilton, E., Rolfes, S. Understanding Nutrition Fifth Edition. West Publishing Company. New York. 1990.

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