Vegan breast milk rich in key nutrients, says study
Even though vegan diets consistently emerge as a healthy way to eat, there are certain nutrients that are difficult to get without consuming animal products. Research has now found that two of them are produced by nursing vegan mothers, regardless.
In a 2021 study, it was found that children who eat a vegan diet from the time they are young have better cardiovascular health than their vegetarian and omnivorous cohorts. However, that same study also showed that vegan children were, on average, about an inch (3 cm) shorter than those in the other groups and that they were likely to be deficient in vitamin B-12.
Seeking to examine vegan nutrition and how it relates to children even further, researchers at Amsterdam University Medical Centers undertook a study to examine the effects a vegan diet had on nursing mothers. Because vegan diets are often deficient in vitamin B2 and the metabolic compound carnitine, the thinking was that such deficiencies would naturally show up in breastmilk. However, the study did not support that idea. In fact, even though the vegan mothers studied had lower blood levels of both B2 and carnitine, their breast milk showed no difference in the supply of the nutrients compared to mothers on an omnivore diet.
"The results of our study suggest that vitamin B2 and carnitine concentrations in human milk are not influenced by consumption of a vegan diet," said lead researcher Hannah Juncker. "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. 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 findings should be a welcome relief to nursing vegan moms, as both nutrients are critical to infants ingesting breast milk during their first months of life. Vitamin B2 (also called riboflavin) is found most abundantly in beef but can also be found in fortified foods like tofu and in some vegetables like mushrooms, spinach and avocados. When it's deficient in the diet of infants, anemia and neurological problems can arise.
Carnitine, which is involved in the process that turns fat to energy, is present most abundantly in beef, pork, chicken and fish. When nursing infants don't get enough of the compound, heart and brain dysfunctions can occur, in addition to low blood sugar. Low levels of carnitine later in life have also been linked to depression.
The results of the study were presented today at the 55th Annual Meeting of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN).