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For the breastfeeding vegan, vitamin B12 supplementation is important

A recent study compared the breast milk of moms who ate meat, were vegetarian, or vegan. The study also analyzed vitamin B12 supplementation and levels in breast milk.

A concern for vegetarian or vegan has always been to ensure that they are obtaining all the nutrients their body needs.

For breastfeeding moms, this concern is exponentially heightened due to the need to also supply the baby with all the nutrients he or she needs.

Vitamin B12 is essential for brain and nerve development

For vegetarians or vegans, vitamin B12 can only be obtained through eating fortified foods or taking supplements.

Two previous studies in the United States have shown that this group of breastfeeding women has low levels of vitamin B12 in their milk.

Vitamin B12 is important for brain and nerve development in the baby, so much so, that the German Nutrition Society actually recommends against a vegan diet for any person still growing, including pregnant and breastfeeding moms.

However, analytical discrepancies in previous studies led researchers in the United States to conduct a new study.

Their objective was to compare the breast milk of moms who ate meat, were vegetarian, or were vegan.

Vitamin B12 supplementation and levels in the breast milk were recorded to see how it affected the breast milk. Their findings were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In total, results from 74 women were obtained, with approximately equal numbers of women consuming meat or following diets that were vegetarian or vegan.

Vitamin B12 supplementation was taken by 78% of the women, in varying forms including multi-vitamins, prenatal vitamins, B-complex vitamins, and individual vitamin B12.

No significant difference in levels of vitamin B12 in breast milk was found between women with differing diets.

These results are in contrast to previous studies, and the researchers discuss that this may be because vegan women in previous studies were not taking vitamin B12 supplements.

Vegan women taking vitamin B12 supplements were at no disadvantage

Almost 20% of the women in the study had low levels of vitamin B12 in their breast milk.

Vegan women taking an individual vitamin B12 supplement were more likely to have a high concentration of vitamin B12 in breast milk.

Interestingly, women taking a multivitamin were more likely to have a low concentration of vitamin B12 in their breast milk.

The researchers conclude that vegan women taking individual vitamin B12 supplements are at no disadvantage compared to their non-vegetarian counterparts in producing breast milk containing vitamin B12.

They discuss however that further research is urgently needed to define acceptable levels of vitamin B12 in breast milk, and how this is best obtained from the diet or supplements.

Related to that, acceptable levels of measuring vitamin B12 in infants also need to be determined.

Written by Nicola Cribb, VetMB DVSc Dip.ACVS

Reference: Pawlak R, Vos P, Shahab-Ferdows S, Hampel D, Allen LH, Perrin MT. Vitamin B-12 content in breast milk of vegan, vegetarian, and nonvegetarian lactating women in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2018. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqy104.

Nicola Cribb
Nicola Cribb
Nicola obtained her Veterinary and Master’s degrees from the University of Cambridge, UK, and Doctor of Veterinary Science from the University of Guelph, Canada. She is board-certified in surgery and has research interests in minimally-invasive surgery. She has worked in a clinical setting, as well as research and teaching disciplines for the past 16 years at the University of Guelph, where she is currently Adjunct Faculty. She is a freelance medical writer and reviews, authors, and co-authors publications and reviews in scientific journals and books.
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