How Healthy Is a Vegan Mom's Breast Milk?

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Key Takeaways

  • Vegan moms who want to breastfeed should find some reassurance in a preliminary new study

  • Levels of vitamin B2 and carnitine — essential nutrients for infant development — were sufficient in breast milk samples

  • A shortage of B2 can lead to neurological problems. Too little carnitine can mean low blood sugar and potentially heart and brain dysfunction

WEDNESDAY, May 17, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Vegan moms can breastfeed their children and not worry that their breast milk is missing essential nutrients, a new study finds.

Researchers from Amsterdam University Medical Center in the Netherlands tested the milk of vegan mothers, finding it contains sufficient levels of vitamin B2 and carnitine.

“The maternal diet greatly influences the nutritional composition of human milk, which is important for child development. With the rise of vegan diets worldwide, also by lactating mothers, there are concerns about the nutritional adequacy of their milk," said lead researcher Dr. Hannah Juncker.

"Therefore, it would be important to know if the milk concentrations of those nutrients are different in lactating women consuming a vegan diet,” she added in a medical center news release.

Vegan diets are limited to plant-based foods. This type of eating includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, soy, nuts and nut butters but no animal-sourced foods.

Although vitamin B2 and carnitine are found in highest concentrations in animal products, they were not missing in vegan moms’ breast milk, challenging assumptions that breastfed infants of these mothers may be deficient in these nutrients.

The study used a technique that separates a sample into its individual parts and analyzes the mass of these parts.

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is important for enzymes involved in many biological pathways. A shortage can lead to anemia and neurological problems in infants, the study authors noted.

Carnitine is involved in energy metabolism, and shortages can mean low blood sugar and potentially heart and brain dysfunction, the researchers said. Previous studies have found that people with vegan diets have lower carnitine intake and plasma concentrations than those who are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal foods.

Although the study found lower serum free carnitine and acetyl carnitine concentrations in the mothers following a vegan diet, it saw no notable difference in human milk carnitine concentrations.

“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,” Juncker said. “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.”

The study findings were scheduled for presentation Wednesday at the annual meeting of the European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, in Vienna. Findings presented at medical meetings are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The American Pregnancy Association has more about the nutrients found in breast milk.

SOURCE: Amsterdam University Medical Center, news release, May 17, 2023

What This Means For You

Don't worry if you only eat plant-based foods. A vegan diet is not a risk for a vitamin B2 or carnitine deficiency in breastfed infants, researchers say.

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