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A nursing mother’s diet can have a profound effect on her baby.  A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that whatever you eat, your baby eats, too. Healthy nutrients and contaminants alike pass from breast milk to baby.  

Energy and Nutrient Needs while Breastfeeding

Calorie and protein needs continue to be high during lactation, as they were in pregnancy. The breastfeeding mother requires an extra 300 to 400 calories above her pre–pregnancy needs for the first 12 months of breastfeeding.

Fortunately, eating well and fulfilling the needs of your newborn child are really quite easy. The healthiest diets derive their nutrients from these sources: vegetables (fresh or frozen), fruit (fresh or frozen), legumes (beans, peas, or lentils), whole grains, and nuts and seeds. There is no need to eat fatty, sugary, and refined packaged foods, nor fish, meat, eggs, and dairy products. 

A vegan diet, supplemented with vitamin B12, helps keep you slim and resistant to illness while providing all the nutrients necessary for optimal health. Contrary to popular belief, vegan and vegetarian diets have plenty of protein to meet your needs.

Caring for a newborn child is an exciting, rewarding, and at times exhausting experience for most parents. As a parent, you have accomplished the amazing feat of giving life to a new person. You now have the opportunity to offer your baby love and care as well as the gift of good health.

Studies show that vegan moms (who do not consume any animal products) have lower levels of environmental contaminants such as pesticides in their breast milk compared with meat– and dairy–eating moms. Do yourself and your baby a lifelong favor by choosing a clean, safe, healthful, and delicious vegetarian diet while breastfeeding.


Babies will take a substantial amount of calcium from breast milk, so it is essential for nursing mothers to eat foods rich in this mineral. However, maternal absorption increases during pregnancy and lactation, so there is no increased need for calcium above pre–pregnancy levels. The best sources of readily absorbable calcium are found in green vegetables such as broccoli, kale, collards, and mustard greens, as well as in legumes (beans, peas, and lentils). 

In addition to the essential nutrients found in vegetables, they are also loaded with protective compounds such as antioxidants, making it even more important to try to eat numerous vegetables each day. Women who have difficulty digesting broccoli or other vegetables may wish to cook them longer; this does not reduce their calcium content. Avoid broccoli if your baby is colicky.

Calcium–fortified foods such as orange and apple juice, tofu, soymilk, and cereals also provide plenty of calcium, without the disadvantages of dairy products. Beans, peas, and lentils not only contain calcium, but other minerals, vitamins, fiber, protein, and small amounts of healthful fats as well. 

Vitamin B12

It is important for your daily menu to include a source of vitamin B12, such as a serving of fortified cereal or soymilk, nutritional yeast, or any common multivitamin. Pregnant and lactating women should aim to get at least 4 micrograms of vitamin B12 per day.

Vitamin B12 may be listed on multivitamins or food labels by its chemical names,cobalamin or cyanocobalamin. Large doses of some vitamins may pass through breast milk and make your baby ill, however, so supplements should be discussed with a doctor first.

A Clean Food Supply for Your Baby

A diet built entirely from fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes has the added advantage of reducing levels of environmental contaminants in breast milk. Studies show that women who consume meat of all types and dairy products have higher levels of chemical contaminants in their breast milk, probably because these chemicals tend to concentrate in animal tissues.1 Plant foods have much lower levels of contaminants than foods from animal sources and are even cleaner when they are grown organically.

Fish is often very high in contaminants. It commonly contains mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and other organochlorine pesticides, which can pass through breast milk to nursing babies. These contaminants, which have been linked to cancer and other health problems, tend to accumulate in body fat and remain in the body for decades.

Dairy products, including cow’s milk, raise this same contamination concern. Since pesticides and other contaminants tend to concentrate in milk, nursing mothers who eat dairy products pass them along to their babies. Cow’s milk proteins can also enter breast milk. These proteins can cause colic, as well as contributing to allergic reactions and a whole host of other problems in babies.

1. Dagnelie PC, van Staveren WA, Roos AH, Tuinstra LG, Burema J.Nutrients and contaminants in human milk from mothers on macrobiotic and omnivorous diets.  Eur J Clin Nutr. 1992 May;46(5):355–66

Daily Meal Planning Guidelines for Nursing Women

The following chart indicates the minimum number of servings needed for approximately 2,400 or more calories per day. Fewer servings may be needed depending on your activity level, desired weight loss, and time breastfeeding. However, women who are overweight should not attempt to cut calories too drastically (not below 1,800 calories per day), as this may affect breast milk quality and production. Slow weight loss is best.

Whole Grains, Breads, Cereals
pasta 11 or more servings, choose whole grains whenever possible.
Serving = 1 slice of bread, 1/2 bun or bagel, 1/2 cup cooked cereal, grain, or pasta, 3/4 to 1 cup of ready–to–eat cereal
Legumes, Nuts, Seeds, Milks
bean 6 or more servings, choose calcium–rich foods such as fortified soymilk, tofu, and beans.
Include a daily source of omega–3 fatty acids such 1 1/2 tablespoons ground flaxseed or 3 tablespoons walnuts.

Serving = 1 cup cooked beans, 4 oz of tempeh or tofu, 3 oz of meat analogue, 1/4 cup nuts or seeds, 2 tablespoons nut or seed butter, 1 cup fortified soymilk or other fortified non–dairy milk
greens 5 or more servings, choose at least one dark green vegetable daily. Broccoli, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, and bok choy are good calcium–rich vegetables.
Serving = 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw
orange 5 or more servings, choose fresh fruit and calcium–fortified juices.
Serving = 1/2 cup canned fruit or juice or 1 medium fruit, or 1 cup fruit pieces or 2 tablespoons dried fruit

Adapted from material from the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, American Dietetics Association, 1996.

Fluid Needs

Nursing mothers need to drink plenty of fluids. Water, juice, and other non–dairy beverages, such as soymilk, are good choices.

In addition to your usual fluid intake, nursing mothers should drink as much liquid as your baby takes from you. One way to do this is to drink a glass of water or soymilk 10 to 15 minutes before feeding your baby. Or sip from your glass while your baby nurses. It’s a good idea to avoid drinking hot liquids while breastfeeding as a sudden movement could result in an accidental scalding.

Moms can generally consume decaffeinated and herbal teas and decaffeinated coffee without causing babies any harm, though some mothers find that when they drink coffee, their babies become fussy. 

Since alcohol will pass through to breast milk, it is best to avoid it while nursing.

Other Tips

A diet built from a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes, along with a source of vitamin B12, is satisfying and healthy. Combined with simple exercise, such as brisk walking several days a week, and plenty of rest, it will help new mothers feel fit and energetic. 

Getting sufficient rest is important and likely will be a challenge in the first weeks.  Although breastfeeding is the easiest way to feed newborns, producing milk requires the body to work.

If you get overtired, you may find that your milk supply decreases—and suddenly your baby is demanding to be fed every hour. One tip: Napping, or at least resting, when baby naps will help.

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