If you’ve clicked on an article about a vegan breastfeeding diet, it must mean that your baby is almost (or perhaps already) here. How exciting!
There’s also a good chance that you’re interested in nourishing yourself and your little one through a plant-based diet.
I’m sure you’re already aware that your choice may raise some eyebrows. As a registered dietitian specializing in plant-based diets, I’m here to assure you that a well-planned vegan diet can absolutely be appropriate for all life stages.
The key-word here is “well-planned”. This means it’s not enough to just ditch the animal products and focus on eating more fruits and veggies. A proper vegan breastfeeding diet requires a little bit more thought than that.
In this article, I’ll cover the main key points to keep in mind when planning to nurse your little bundle of joy on a plant-based vegan diet.
Eat Enough Calories
Eating enough calories is important for all breastfeeding mamas, whether following a plant-based diet or not.
This is especially important if you’re planning to exclusively breastfeed. In this case, you’ll be your baby’s sole source of nutrition for the first few months of his or her life. So your body will require extra energy to produce the milk your baby needs.
These extra calories will also help keep you energized so you can care for your little one.
As a rule of thumb, vegan breastfeeding mamas need around 500 extra calories per day compared to how much they needed pre-pregnancy (3).
That’s just slightly above the extra 450 calories needed in the last trimester of pregnancy.
Of course, the exact amount needed will vary based on your baby’s appetite, the amount of food he or she will eventually eat besides breast milk and on the amount of babies you’ll be nursing at the same time.
Since I’m not a huge advocate of tracking or counting your calories, I don’t suggest fretting about the exact numbers. Instead, I encourage you to listen to your hunger and satiety signals to determine when and how much to eat.
If your diet is otherwise well-balanced, with sufficient amounts of protein, complex carbs, fat and fluids, listening to your body’s cues should be very effective at guiding your portion sizes.
Summary: Eating enough calories while nursing your baby will help keep you energized and help your body produce enough milk for your little one to grow.
Drink Enough Fluids
As a breastfeeding mama, you’ll need plenty of fluids. This will help you stay hydrated and make it easier for your body to produce enough milk for your baby.
Drinking enough may also make it easier to recognize your body’s signals of hunger and satiety. This can help you regulate how much to eat without ever weighing foods or counting calories.
I’m aware that it can sometimes be difficult to remember to drink, especially when you’re busy caring for a newborn.
If you find yourself running into this challenge, try placing a water bottle or tea kettle in an area you spend a lot of time in and use as a visual reminder to drink.
Keeping fluids near your nursing station can also be handy, especially for easy access during night feedings.
You may also want to get into the habit of drinking a glass of water before every meal or snack. Doing this consistently will add up and help keep you well-hydrated each day.
Although I’m putting an emphasis on drinking enough, there’s no need to force yourself to drink more than your body naturally wants to. Simply drinking to satisfy thirst will be sufficient for most mamas.
When in doubt, take a look at the color of your urine. Generally speaking, a dark colored urine is a sign that you need to drink more fluids. Constipation, dry eyes or a dry mouth are other telltale signs.
Summary: Staying hydrated is particularly important for breastfeeding mamas. Every mama will have different hydration needs, so simply aim to drink enough to quench your own thirst.
Add Protein to Each Meal and Snack
Protein-rich foods are a must for all vegan breastfeeding mamas.
That’s because protein is essential to build and repair tissue — something both you and your baby needs.
While nursing, your daily protein needs remain the same as they were throughout pregnancy. That’s around 75-85 grams per day for most mamas or around 100-115 grams if you’re nursing twins (4).
Meeting these requirements shouldn’t be too difficult as long as you remember to add protein-rich foods to each meal or snack.
High-protein foods include legumes, whole grains, nut and seeds will help with this. These same foods also happen to be rich in iron, zinc, calcium and B-vitamins — all of which are important for breastfeeding.
Here is a list of foods that provides 15 grams of protein per serving:
|Black beans, cooked||1 cup (240ml)|
|Chickpeas, cooked||1 cup (240ml)|
|Edamame||1 cup (240ml)|
|Lentils, cooked||7/8 cup (210ml)|
|Most nuts||1/2 cup (120ml))|
|Mots nut butters||1/4 cup (60ml)|
|Tempeh||1/2 cup (120ml)|
|Tofu, firm||3.5oz (100g)|
|Soymilk||1 cup (240ml)|
|Pasta, whole wheat, cooked||2 cups (480ml)|
|Quinoa, cooked||2 cups (480ml)|
Summary: Adding protein-rich foods to each meal and snack can help vegan breastfeeding mamas meet their daily protein needs.
Eat Enough Good Fats
Fats are essential to both your and your baby’s health.
There are various types of good fats but omega-3s are probably the most important type to get enough of while nursing a baby. Omega-3s can be split into two groups:
- Essential omega-3 fatty acids: This category includes alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is the only omega-3 fatty acid that you can only get from your diet.
- Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: This category includes eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These two omega-3 fats are not technically considered essential because your body can make them from ALA.
Foods rich in ALA include flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, hempseeds and soy nuts while microalgae is the only vegan source of EPA and DHA.
Although our bodies can convert ALA into DHA, the conversion rate may be as low as 1%. For this reason, vegan breastfeeding mamas are advised to eat enough ALA and take an algae oil supplement providing 200-300 mg of DHA per day (8, 9, 10).
Summary: Getting enough omega-3s, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is important for your baby’s brain and vision. Vegan breastfeeding mamas might benefit from taking a DHA supplement.
Pay Attention to Your Vitamins and Minerals
The amount of nutrients a nursing mama needs are slightly different than those required during pregnancy. And getting the right balance can have a big impact.
In most cases, the amount of vitamins and minerals in your diet will directly determine their levels in your milk. Therefore, a nutrient-poor diet will result in nutrient-poor milk for your baby.
In other cases, your baby has the ability to dig into your nutrient stores to meet his or her needs. So a nutrient-poor diet may not negatively impact your baby directly but can leave your own nutrient stores depleted, causing you to feel tired, weak or sick.
The following sections review the vitamins and minerals vegan breastfeeding mamas should be most mindful of.
Nearly all stories that appear in the news about sick vegans or vegan babies have to do with poor vitamin B12 intakes.
The amount of vitamin B12 you get from your diet will directly determine the amount of vitamin B12 in your milk. So it’s massively important for vegan breastfeeding mamas to get enough B12 to help their little ones meet their daily needs.
Despite what you may have heard about unwashed organic produce, algae or certain mushrooms, vitamin B12-enriched foods or supplements are the only reliable sources of vitamin B12 for vegan breastfeeding mamas (11, 12, 13).
- 2.8 mcg: From fortified foods, spread out over at least 3 different moments in the day.
- 25 – 250 mcg: From a daily cyanocobalamin supplement.
- 1,000 mcg: From a cyanocobalamin supplement taken two to three times a week.
Vitamin A requirements almost double while nursing a baby.
That’s because this vitamin is vital to help cells specialize to carry out various functions in the body. Vitamin A is also needed for hormone function and the growth of teeth and bones (21).
Plant-foods rich in vitamin A include orange, yellow and green fruit and vegetables. Good examples include carrots, peppers, mangoes, papayas, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkin, broccoli, turnips and leafy greens.
During pregnancy, your iron needs were around 27 mg per day. Yet, after giving birth, they drop dramatically to around 9 mg per day and remain low until you start menstruating again.
This means that mamas who took an iron supplement during pregnancy likely won’t need it anymore while nursing their babies.
That said, babies do need to receive enough iron for their brains to develop normally (22).
So make sure to include iron-rich foods such as spinach, kale, broccoli, beans, peas, dried fruit, nuts and seeds to your diet to help cover both your and your baby’s needs.
It’s worth noting that the iron in breastmilk is very well absorbed by your baby’s gut. Plus, healthy full-term babies tend to have enough iron stored from birth to last them until solids are introduced.
Therefore, supplements are generally not needed for your little ones either. Simply introduce iron-rich foods to their diets when they start eating solids.
Zinc is a nutrient that helps your baby grow and develop a healthy gut and immune system (23).
If your diet is low in zinc, your baby will dig into your stores to meet his or her needs. So it’s important you get enough zinc through your diet to prevent your own stores from becoming depleted.
As a nursing mama, your zinc requirement increase slightly from the 11mg per day you needed during pregnancy to 12 mg per day for nursing (24).
You can meet those requirements by adding zinc-rich foods such as wheat germ, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds (as well as their butters) to your meals.
Despite what many mamas think, calcium needs don’t actually increase while nursing a baby. In truth, they remain at the recommended 1,000 mg of calcium per day (25).
However, it remains very important to get enough calcium through your diet. Failing to do so will force your body to use the calcium stored in your bones to ensure your baby gets enough to build strong bones of its own.
Over time, this can weaken your own bones, which may increase your risk of fractures and bone disease.
Some people insist that vegans have lower calcium needs than omnivores because their diet is not as acidic as a meat-rich diet.
More research is needed to determine how a meatless diet affects calcium requirements. But what we do know is that vegans who consume less than 525 mg of calcium per day tend to have a higher risk of bone fractures (26).
So you should at the very least make sure you get 525 mg of calcium per day from your diet. However, aiming for the 1,000 mg per day recommendation likely remains best.
Calcium-rich plant foods include bok choy, broccoli, napa cabbage, collard greens, kale, okra, calcium-set tofu, almonds, blackstrap molasses and figs. Calcium-fortified plant milks, juices and yoghurts are other great options.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps build strong bones by helping the body absorb the calcium and phosphorus present in foods. It also helps nerves and muscles function properly and promotes a strong immune system (29).
While nursing a baby, your vitamin D requirements don’t change from the 15 mcg (600 IU) recommended during pregnancy.
The only vegan reliable sources of vitamin D are fortified foods, supplements and sun exposure.
Nursing mamas that can’t expose their skin to the mid-day sun without sunscreen for at least 15 minutes a couple of times per week may not be able to make enough vitamin D.
Mamas with darker skin tones, or those living in northern latitudes or in areas where the sun doesn’t shine much may also find it difficult to produce enough vitamin D from sun-exposure alone.
This is especially true in the winter months — between October and March.
If that’s the case for you, you’d likely benefit from adding vitamin D-fortified foods or a vitamin D supplement to your diet.
It’s important to note that breast milk is typically low in vitamin D. So your baby will also need supplemental vitamin D drops if he or she doesn’t get enough sun exposure.
The current recommendation is 10 mcg (400 IU) of vitamin D per day between ages 0 to 12 months and 15 mcg (600 IU) from age 1 onwards (29).
Choline is a nutrient essential for the health of the nervous system and it’s especially important for your baby’s brain development (30).
Choline is present in all cell membranes which means that many plant foods contain small amounts of this nutrient.
Our bodies also have the ability to produce choline in the liver, but the amount produced may not meet 100% of our daily needs (31).
Choline is passed to your baby through breastmilk, which increases a nursing mama’s requirements to 550 mg of choline per day (30).
Plant foods rich in choline include peanuts, wheat germ, tofu, soymilk, quinoa, chickpeas, lentils, broccoli and Brussel sprouts. However, even when including these foods to your diet daily, it may be difficult to reach the daily recommended amount.
To be on the safe side, vegan pregnant mamas may want to take choline in supplement form.
Iodine is another nutrient important for brain development. It’s also an essential component of thyroid hormones and needed for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland (32).
The amount of iodine your baby will receive through nursing will depend on your own iodine levels. So low iodine levels in your diet can put your baby at risk of not getting enough, delaying its motor and brain development.
The recommended intake for iodine while nursing is 290 micrograms per day (32).
Typically, all plant foods contain some iodine since they take it up from the soil they grown in. However, not all soils contain enough iodine, which makes it difficult to know whether the foods you eat contain enough of this nutrient.
Some, like kelp, dulse and kombu, can contain unhealthily high amounts which can cause some health problems 34).
Iodized salt is another source of iodine, but you’d have to consume more than 2 grams of iodized salt per day to meet your iodine requirements. This ends up being more salt than typically recommended.
For all these reason, I don’t consider seaweed or iodized salt as ideal sources of iodine. Instead, iodine drops provide the easiest and most reliable way for vegan breastfeeding mamas to ensure they meet their daily iodine needs.
Summary: Vegan breastfeeding mamas should ensure that their diet remains rich in vitamins and minerals. Special attention should be given to vitamins A, D and B12, iron, zinc, calcium, choline and iodine.
Vegan Breastfeeding Menu
Now that you know which nutrients to watch out for, follow the following tips to achieve the right balance.
- Prioritize whole foods: Minimally processed foods are richer in nutrients and help your body recognize its hunger and satiety signals best.
- Favor red, orange and dark leafy veggies: Fill at least one third of your plate with 2 different colored vegetables at each meal. This will help meet your vitamin A, iron and calcium needs.
- Eat whole grains: Aim to fill one third of your plate with whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, oats and whole grain bread, crackers, pita or pasta. This will contribute towards your iron and zinc needs.
- Fill up on protein: Add protein-rich plant foods such as tofu, beans, lentils, tempeh, seitan, nuts and seeds to each meal and snack.
- Limit omega-6 fats: Especially corn, sunflower, soybean and cottonseed oils.
- Drink enough water: Try drinking a glass of water before or with each meal and snack.
- Eat calcium-rich foods: Ensure you consume at least 3 portions of enriched plant milks, yoghurts or leafy greens each day.
- Snack on fruit: Aim to eat at least 3 portions of fruit per day. These will provide a variety of of vitamins and minerals to your diet.
- Include nuts and seeds: Aim for 2 servings of nuts and seeds per day, one of which should be omega-3 rich walnuts, chia, flax or hemp seeds.
- Supplement when needed: Consider adding a vitamin D, vitamin B12, iodine, choline and DHA-rich algae oil supplement to your diet.
Double-Check Your Diet
The tips above should help you meet your recommended carb, protein, fat, vitamin, mineral and hydration needs needs.
But it’s always a good idea to double-check. To do so, I suggest you record what you eat for a couple of days in an online food journal such as Cronometer.
Side-by-side comparison of nutrient needs:
|Vitamin A||700 mcg||1,300 mcg|
|Vitamin C||75 mg||120 mg|
|Vitamin D||15 mcg||15 mcg|
|Vitamin E||15 mcg||19 mcg|
|Vitamin K||90 mcg||90 mcg|
|Thiamin||1.1 mg||1.4 mg|
|Riboflavin||1.1 mg||1.6 mg|
|Niacin||14 mg||17 mg|
|Folate||400 mg||500 mg|
|Vitamin B12||2.4 mcg||2.8 mcg|
|Pantothenic Acid||5 mg||7 mg|
|Biotin||30 mcg||35 mcg|
|Choline||425 mg||550 mg|
|Calcium||1,000 mg||1,000 mg|
|Chromium||25 mcg||45 mcg|
|Copper||900 mcg||1,300 mcg|
|Fluoride||3 mg||3 mg|
|Iodine||150 mg||290 mg|
|Iron||18 mg||9 mg|
|Magnesium||310-320 mg||310-320 mg|
|Manganese||1.8 mg||2.6 mg|
|Molybdenum||45 mg||50 mg|
|Phosphorus||700 mg||700 mg|
|Selenium||55 mcg||70 mcg|
|Zinc||8 mg||12 mg|
|Potassium||4.7 g||5.1 g|
|Sodium||1.5 g||1.5 g|
|Chloride||2.3 g||2.3 g|
Summary: The practical tips above should help you meet your body’s nutrient needs on a vegan breastfeeding diet.
To Sum it Up
A vegan diet can be healthy and absolutely appropriate while nursing your little one. However, it needs to be well-planned and provide sufficient amounts of calories and nutrients.
In particular, vegan mamas should pay special attention to vitamins A, D and B12, iron, zinc, calcium, choline, omega-3s and iodine.
If you have any questions about a healthy vegan breastfeeding diet that I haven’t addressed above, feel free to post them in the comments below.
If you’d like to check out an example of a full day vegan breastfeeding menu, simply enter your info below so I can send it to your inbox. It’s free!