Is the breast milk of vegetarian mothers different to that of non-vegetarian mothers?

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Well, yes.  The breast milk of vegetarian mothers is different to that of non-vegetarian mothers. This blog is mainly going to talk about the type of fat found in breast milk, then touch briefly on the vitamin missing from a vegetarian diet, vitamin B12.

Given the same caloric intake, the overall quantity of fat found in breast milk is the same, however, because vegetarians do not eat animal fat, their milk contains less saturated fat.  In these days of venerated low cholesterol and the modern day devil – saturated fat, move over Lucifer – this might seem a good thing.  However, when it comes to babies it isn’t.  The conclusion of an old study done in19851 states

Although some aspects of vegetarian diets may be beneficial for adults in relation to high blood pressure, ischemic heart disease, and cancer, there are a number of reports in the literature of European and American children who have suffered malnutrition or had lowered growth rates whilst being breast-fed by vegetarians.

Why is this?  Well, for a baby, one of the most important fats to get is DHA – one of the 2 components of omega 3 oils:  DHA and EPA.  DHA is a critical oil in the development of the brain and a vital part of a baby’s diet.  These omega 3 fats are found in oily fish- but also in wild meats and grass fed farm animals in the summer.  There is no vegetarian equivalent of DHA.  Some insist that ALA (most common source is flax and pumpkin seeds) is converted to EPA/DHA in the body, but this is inefficient, yielding only a small amount of EPA and even less DHA.  So mothers who rarely or never ate fish had lower levels of DHA.

The study also found that when intake levels of linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat prevalent in sunflower, safflower and grape seed oils, was high, the mother’s own manufacture of the saturated fats myristoleic acid and palmitic acid was down .  Also after a high carbohydrate meal, the saturated fat, stearic acid, was down.

This would suggest that both fatty acid synthesis and uptake of fatty acids derived from body stores and diet will change in accord with changes in polyunsaturated fatty acids in milk, and that there is not a simple replacement of fatty acids from vegetable sources for fatty acids from animal sources.

There are some frightening studies done in India on breast milk.  For reasons of religion or poverty,  many Indians are vegetarian and have been for generations.  The conclusions of these studies and the symptoms described are too scaremongering to quote here.  The cited studies are easy enough to find for more detail, but, in short, the babies were extremely ill and weak.  These studies concentrated on how much B12 was found in breast milk.  B12 is only available from animal sources – or supplementation – and is vital in the development of a healthy baby, especially its brain. 23

So if one is a committed vegetarian and planning on having a baby, it is easiest to become a ‘fishatarian’ for a year before conceiving and during the breast feeding stage.  Eating eggs and dairy – goats is far superior – would also help. At the very least, supplement with fish oils – and not vegetarian equivalents – and well sourced vitamin B12.  A healthy baby is a happy baby and since we all want to give birth to clever children,it is wise to put the right ingredients into the pot.

  1. Finley D A, Lönnerdal B, Dewey KG, Grivetti L E.  Breast milk composition: fat content and fatty acid composition in vegetarians and non-vegetarians.  Am J Clin Nutr. april 1985 []
  2. Antony A C.  Vegetarianism and Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) deficiency.  Am J Clin Nutr.  July 2003 vol 78 no.1 3-6 []
  3. Jathar V S, Kamath S A, Parikh M N, Rege D V, Satoskar R S.  Maternal milk and serum vitamin B12, folic acid and protein levels in Indian subjects.  Archives of disease in childhood, 1970, 45, 236 []

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