Nutritional Benefits Of Vegetarian Diet For Breastfeeding Mothers

More and more people are eating less meat or converting over to a completely plant-based diet. Your optimized diet may have suited you before you were pregnant and maybe even during, but now that you are breastfeeding (or are planning to do so), you need to ask yourself: “Can I be vegetarian or vegan and breastfeed? Will there be enough nutrients in my breastmilk for my baby?”

Good news! You can follow a plant-based diet and breastfeed without complications. In fact, a plant-based diet can even be beneficial to you and your baby, but you are going to have to keep a careful watch on your nutrition.

Here is everything you need to know about being a vegetarian and breastfeeding, including the benefits and some common issues that occur:

What Is a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet?

There are different branches of vegetarianism and veganism, some more restrictive than others. The main focus, though, is that you are consuming more plants than you are animal-derived proteins. If you are vegan, you are avoiding animal-derived products, such as dairy, altogether.

Lacto-Ovo vegetarians still consume milk and eggs but do not eat meat or seafood. Lacto vegetarians are plant-based and consist of some dairy.

Semi-Vegetarians or Flexitarians will eat meat or seafood or both on occasion, but the diet is about 90 percent plant-based.

Then there are Pescetarians, who avoid meat but will still consume fish and shellfish.

Lastly, there is veganism, which does not contain meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, or any animal-derived ingredients. The vegan diet can be healthy, but it is more difficult than all other plant-based diet forms to achieve optimized nutrition. Many vegans have to take supplements to fill in nutritional gaps.

How Diet Affects Breastmilk

Whether you have been vegetarian for yours or are just beginning to transition over to a vegan diet, you probably already know a little about diet affects you and your body. But now that you are supporting the life of another, you should know exactly how your diet can change your breastmilk.

Breastmilk contains a balanced ratio of protein, fat, carbohydrates, over 20 amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Some of these are going to be in your breastmilk regardless of your diet, since they are present in your body already. However, others are essential—meaning you must consume them from food sources.

An example of this is calcium. If you’re not consuming enough calcium in your diet, your breastmilk won’t have enough for your baby. In fact, your body might even begin leeching calcium from your own bones and the kidneys will secrete less calcium just so that more will be available for breastmilk.

But that is just to tip of the iceberg. You see, if you are not consuming enough calories and nutrients, it will negatively impact you and your growing infant. Firstly, you want to make sure you are getting enough calories, which can sometimes be difficult on a plant-based diet. When you breastfeed, you need 300-500 calories more than your maintenance level, which is around 2000 calories a day for moderately active women.

Next, if you aren’t eating foods rich in iron, DHA, iodine, zinc, and vitamin B12, both you and your baby will develop deficiencies. Since vitamin B12 is only available through animal proteins and supplements, most vegetarians and vegans are already deficient.

However, if you are covering all these bases, taking the right supplements (such as B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and iron), and eating enough calories, then your breastmilk will be exactly what your baby needs to grow up healthy and strong. Not only that, but the two of you can reap a lot of benefits from a plant-based diet.

Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

There are a number of advantages to vegetarianism and veganism that will benefit your baby, too. Here is a look at some of the benefits of a vegetarian diet for breastfeeding mothers:

Reduced Risk of Hypertension

Plant-based diets have been associated with lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure (reduced hypertension), and better weight management. While having hypertension won’t directly impact your baby after delivery, gestational hypertension can be harmful to your pregnancy. Furthermore, since cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women in the United States, you should do everything in your power starting now to lower any potential risks.

Lower Risk of Heart Disease

There have been numerous studies over the years on the effects of a plant-based diet, like vegetarianism, on heart health. The groundbreaking Lyon Diet Heart Study found that vegetarianism can contribute to an up to 70 percent reduction in mortality from coronary heart disease.

Controls Diabetes

Plant-based diets can assist with insulin resistance and sensitivity, which is great if you are diabetic or developed gestational diabetes during your pregnancy. Usually, diabetic women will deliver babies with a condition called macrosomia, where the child is larger than normal because of too much sugar in the placenta. Others deliver premature babies. Furthermore, breastfeeding when you have diabetes can cause hypoglycemia, which can be debilitating.

But if a plant-based diet can help you control that more effectively (along with exercise and other lifestyle changes), then you should consider trying it.

Assists With Weight Loss

Mothers who are heavier during pregnancy and post-delivery oftentimes have children who are obese as well, which can later cause high blood glucose levels and type 2 diabetes. Breastmilk from obese mothers also has higher pro-inflammatory fatty acid levels and less of the vital nutrients for neurological and visual development.

When you are at a lower, healthier weight, your breastmilk is also healthier for your baby and has a better nutritional balance.

Reduces Cancer Risk

Breastfeeding alone will reduce your risk of cancer and give your baby enough antioxidants to help them ward off cancer and other illnesses, too. But what if you can amplify that effect even further? Eating 5-6 servings of fruits and vegetables has been linked to a lower risk of cancer in general, thanks to all the antioxidants you get. Those vitamins and minerals will also be shared with your baby, so eat up!

Final Thoughts

Although you will have to be careful of your caloric intake and may need supplements to make sure you are meeting requirements, you can definitely be vegetarian or vegan and breastfeed. Furthermore, you and your baby can enjoy a number of benefits from vegetarianism during this time. Lower risk of illness and cancer, as well as a healthier weight, ensure that you and your baby will have longer, healthier lives together.

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