Vegan Breastmilk Does Contain Essential Nutrients for Infants

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Vegan diets do not affect breastmilk concentrations of vitamin B2 and carnitine, which are essential nutrients for developing infantsViktorcvetkovic/Getty Images
  • New research finds that breastmilk from parents who eat a vegan diet does contain two important nutrients, carnitine and vitamin B2.
  • The findings challenge previous assumptions that vegan diets may not be nutritionally complete.
  • The research also challenges concerns that breastfed infants of vegan parents may be at risk of developing vitamin B2 or carnitine deficiency.

Vegan parents’ breast milk contains two important nutrients, says new research from the Amsterdam UMC study presented at the 55th Annual Meeting of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition (ESPGHAN).

The new findings challenge assumptions that vegan diets may not be nutritionally complete and that breastfed infants of vegan parents may be at an increased risk of developing vitamin B2 or carnitine deficiency, says the study authors in the press release

“Carnitine and vitamin B2 are both found in highest concentrations in animal products including meat and cow’s milk (except skim milk has less riboflavin and milk stored in glass because riboflavin is sensitive to light and degrades),” Amy Sapola, PharmD, a certified wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and the director of “Farmacy” at The Chef’s Garden, tells Healthline.

Vitamin B2 deficiency in infants can lead to anemia and neurological problems and carnitine shortages in the infant can lead to low blood sugar, as well as the possibility of heart and brain dysfunction, according to the press release.

And with the continued rise of vegan diets worldwide, there have been concerns about the nutritional ‘adequacy’ of breast milk from people following a vegan diet, says lead researcher Dr. Hannah Juncker in the same press release.

But these results suggest vitamin B2 and carnitine concentrations in human milk are not even influenced by consumption of a vegan diet and that a vegan diet in lactating parents is not a risk for the development of a vitamin B2 or carnitine deficiency in breastfed infants, adds Juncker.

“This information is useful for breastfeeding mothers and also for donor human milk banks, which collect milk for provision to premature infants who do not receive sufficient mother’s own milk,” she explains.

It’s possible to have a healthy lifestyle and nutritionally-balanced pregnancy while eating a vegan diet and/or living a vegan lifestyle, say experts.

“A well-planned vegan diet can be an excellent way to obtain a balance of diet essentials including: protein, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals,” Amy Bragagnini, MS, RD, CSO, an oncology nutrition specialist at Mercer Health Lacks Cancer Center in Michigan and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Healthline.

“Most of my clients following a vegan diet have studied up on how to obtain the necessary nutrients they need to consume each day,” she says.

“Likewise, I suspect lactating women who choose to eat vegan have also thought about the health of their infants,” she adds.

“They likely do their best to consume specific nutrients (protein, zinc, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamin D and B vitamins) from non-animal sources like calcium fortified tofu, beans, chickpeas, quinoa, fruits/vegetables, and a variety of nuts and seeds,” Bragagnini tells Healthline.

“In addition, it is possible that vegan breastfeeding moms take additional supplements to help fulfill the nutrient requirements that may be missing from not consuming animal products,” she adds.

Vitamin B2 crosses from parent to infant in breast milk. To continue nourishing an infant with optimal amounts of vitamin B2, Sapola says it’s essential that the parent’s dietary intake remains optimal.

“Vitamin B2 is a water soluble vitamin that must be consumed regularly in the diet or in supplement form (the body can’t make it on its own),” explains Sapola.

“During pregnancy, vitamin B2 helps the fetus’ growth, vision, and skin development,” she adds. “Riboflavin is also essential for formation of healthy bones, muscle, red blood cells, and nerves in baby,” Sapola tells Healthline. This makes it an essential nutrient for infants, too.

“Infants who are breastfed have lower rates of eczema and respiratory, ear and gastrointestinal infections,” says Bragagnini. “In addition, breast milk contains a number of non-nutritive components to help babies fight infection as well as utilize and absorb the necessary nutrition,” she explains.

“Not only is breastfeeding an excellent way to deliver balanced nutrients to the infant, but it is also healthy for the mother too,” she says. “Breastfeeding can help rev up mom’s metabolism and breast milk is easy for the baby to digest,” she explains.

Sapola recommends eating a diverse and varied diet of fruits, vegetables, and fortified grains as the key to obtaining enough vitamin B2 from the vegetarian/vegan diet.

She says if someone is unable to obtain enough vitamin B2 in the diet, that supplementation should be taking place.

Sapola notes the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin B2 or riboflavin:

  • During pregnancy and lactation, 1.4 to 1.6 mg per day.
  • Infants (Age: 0 to 12 mo): 0.3 to 0.4 mg per day.

Bragagnini encourages every expecting parent to do some research on consuming balanced diets that will supply the necessary nutrients to support growth and development of their baby.

“Those following a vegan diet will need to focus on getting adequate protein, iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, vitamin D, and B vitamins,” she explains. “I advise vegan moms to investigate what foods are fortified with these necessary nutrients and then include them each day.”

Bragagnini says there are so many delicious ways vegans can meet their nutrient requirements including:

  • Overnight oats made with a fortified plant-based milk alternative, walnuts, and raisins.
  • Fortified breakfast cereals topped with fruit and flaxseeds.
  • For lunch try a quinoa bowl with sauteed spinach, tempeh, broccoli, and chia seeds.
  • End the day with a hearty bean/lentil burger topped with vegan cheese, spinach, tomato, and an excellent vegan spread.

“The most important thing for women regardless of the dietary pattern of eating they follow is to remember that variety is key,” adds Sapola.

Sapola encourages her clients to aim for “eating the rainbow” by including as much color and seasonal variety as possible in each meal.

“Focusing on nutrient density is also important when breastfeeding because you are not only nourishing your own body which is recovering from childbirth but you are nourishing your infant,” she adds. “It is important to work with a healthcare provider that is well versed in the vegan diet and can help guide you towards dietary options as well as supplements when necessary that will support your health and the health of your baby,” says Sapola to Healthline.

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