Vegan mothers’ milk contains two important nutrients

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Experts say breastfeeding is healthy for both the mother and her baby. Mascot/Getty Images
  • Researchers say breast milk from mothers who are on a vegan diet contains a sufficient amount of vitamin B2 and carnitine.
  • The research counters previous studies that reported that vegan breastmilk lacked some essential nutrients.
  • Experts say mothers on a vegan diet still need to make sure they are ingesting calories and nutrients for the infant’s health as well as their own health.

Following a vegan diet does not impact the levels of vitamin B2 and carnitine in maternal breastmilk.

That’s the conclusion of the research presented this week at the 55thth Annual Meeting of the European Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition.

The findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

In the study, researchers reported that lactating mothers who were vegan showed no difference compared with omnivorous mothers in concentrations of the two important nutrients.

“The results of our study suggest that vitamin B2 and carnitine concentrations in human milk are not influenced by consumption of a vegan diet. These results suggest that a vegan diet in lactating mothers is not a risk for the development of a vitamin B2 or carnitine deficiency in breastfed infants,” Dr. Hannah Juncker, the lead author of the study and a researcher at Amsterdam University Medical Centers in the Netherlands, said in a press statement.

“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 added.

The researchers argue their study challenges the idea that a vegan diet is not nutritionally complete and that infants who are breastfed by a vegan mother may have deficiencies in vitamin B2 or carnitine. These nutrients are important for infant development.

Previous research has stated that a significant deficiency of vitamin B2 in infants can result in neurological problems as well as anemia.

A deficiency of carnitine in infants can cause low blood sugar and other complications such as brain and heart dysfunction.

“B2 (Riboflavin) is important in nutrient metabolism (breaking down nutrients and using them in our own body tissues). It’s important in digestion, maintaining cell membranes, and maintaining the integrity of mucous membranes of the digestive tract. It’s available in grains, plants, and dairy, or in nutrient supplements (vitamins),” Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior clinical dietitian at the UCLA Medical Center and an assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in Los Angeles, told MedicalNewsToday.

“Carnitine is present in almost every cell and helps transport certain nutrients to mitochondria (the powerhouses of our cells),” said Hunnes, who was not involved in the study. “Carnitine is important in energy production, which we use for physical activity and also to simply ‘be.’ It’s important for growing babies as their cells are constantly turning over and rebuilding. Carnitine is mostly in meat and dairy, but certain whole grains and asparagus have carnitine in them as well.”

According to the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a vegan diet when properly planned can be healthy and nutritionally adequate.

Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, LD, FAND, the president-elect of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who was also not involved in the study, says a vegan diet can also be appropriate for breastfeeding mothers.

“A vegan diet is safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women as well as their infants. The woman needs to be very strategic with her diet choices,” she told MedicalNewsToday.

The bottom line is to eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods to obtain the extra calories and protein needed during pregnancy and lactation. Keep some key nutrients in mind: protein; consume soy, nuts and beans, quinoa. Iron; fortified breakfast cereals and grains, lentils, tofu, beans, spinach and raisins. calcium; tofu, fortified breakfast cereal and spinach,” Wright added.

Breastfeeding offers health benefits for both infant and mother.

Breastfeeding can help a mother heal after child birth as well as reduce the risk of mothers developing type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer, and some types of breast cancer.

Babies who are breastfed have a lower risk of developing asthma, eczema, childhood obesity, childhood leukemia, ear infection, lower respiratory infection, type 2 diabetes, and sudden infant death syndrome.

“Breastmilk provides adequate amounts of all nutrients except vitamin D and vitamin K and is considered the gold standard. The infant formula is calibrated to match human milk as closely as possible. The importance of DHA on cognitive development and content in human milk was a more recent discovery that infant formulas have tried to catch up to,” Wright said.

While a vegan diet may not impact levels of vitamins like B2 and carnitine in breast milk, the experts who spoke with MedicalNewsToday say other factors can influence both breast milk quantity and quality.

“Very few factors influence the quality of breast milk. The biggest one though is the mother’s total nutritional intake (total calories) and hydration status. If she doesn’t take in enough food or fluid, her milk quantity will go down,” Hunnes said.

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