Since a breastfed baby gets all the nutrients from the mother’s milk, many breastfeeding mothers worry whether the food that they consume is suitable. Can certain food counter allergies or digestive issues in babies? Will having a vegetarian diet lead to insufficient nutrition for a baby? The short answer is yes, but you can prevent this and continue your diet – be it being vegan or vegetarian, as long as you eat a variety of healthy foods that contain sufficient amounts of the necessary vitamins and minerals, or take dietary supplementation.
Firstly, if your diet does not contain enough nutrients that your body requires (e.g. iron, iodine, zinc, DHA and vitamin B12) or to be stored, it will adversely affect the nutritional quality of your breast milk. For instance, because the vitamin B12 can only be found in animal products, vegetarian mothers may have limited intake of these in their bodies, thereby putting their baby at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. This can lead to anaemia, coma or even neurological under-development or damage. Vitamin B12 is also extremely important to maintain immune systems, healthy red blood cells and developing genetic material. To ensure that you and your baby have adequate vitamin B12, you can consume B12-fortified foods like soy foods, brewer’s yeast, fortified cereals, yoghurts, dairy products, eggs and meat substitutes. Safer yet, if you are following a vegan or lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, take vitamin B12 supplementation when you are breastfeeding.
Other common nutritional deficiencies in mothers who follow a vegetarian diet is the lack of calcium, DHA, iron and zinc. You can only get the recommended daily intake of 1,000 mg calcium from food, as your body does not produce it. So if you do not consume dairy, you can get calcium from soy products, tofu, beans, dark leafy greens, figs, calcium-fortified orange juice or calcium supplementation. To obtain your weekly 1,500 mg of DHA, an omega-3 essential fatty acid normally found in fish, other than taking vitamins, you can find it in plant sources, such as leafy green vegetables, walnuts, hempseed, canola and flaxseed oils, which contain alpha-linolenic acid that is converted into DHA by your body, but in small amounts.
Make sure you incorporate enough sources of zinc and iron, such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, veggies, tofu and fruits to protect you from anaemia, as vegetarian diets usually contain lesser iron levels. Our body needs iron to carry oxygen to our tissues and organs. You can also eat more foods that are rich in vitamin C (e.g. citrus fruits, red peppers, strawberries) to improve your absorption of iron. Although many plants contain zinc, the zinc from plants is not absorbed as much as if it is from animal products.
If you are not sure whether you are getting enough nutrients for you and your baby, do consult your doctor or nutritionist. You can also do tests to check your body’s nutrition levels.