Friday, May 18, 2012

Guest Post: Breastfeeding While Vegan

I'm so excited to bring you today's guest post by one of my favorite lactivists, Anayah. You may remember her from the hilarious "Sh*t People Say to Breastfeeding Mothers" video. Today she's discussing an important topic: how to stay healthy and provide the best nutrition for your baby while vegan.

We’re 23 months into this thing. SJ must have known how little I actually knew about breastfeeding, because he latched on perfectly within 30 minutes of being born. The midwife had included pamphlets in our home birth info pack, complete with troubleshooting tips featuring glossy, colorful close-up shots of conditions like thrush and cracked nipples. In my babymooning, I tucked them away and buried my head in the sand. I’d cross those bridges if I ever came to them. It turns out that the most difficult parts of this journey have been maintaining self-care on a plant-based diet and now, keeping my cool through weaning. There were no pamphlets for those things.
So, I’m one of those people who eat a vegan diet. This means that the foods I eat come from plants. On top of that, I’m somewhat of a health nut, so I eat lots of greens, very little processed foods, and try to make sure most of my meals are made at home. I’ve been vegan for about 20 years of my life, but breastfeeding pushed me to reconsider my diet in ways I didn’t have to before. Most people want to talk about protein when it comes to veganism, but since that’s a completely uninformed concern, I won’t deal with it here. I’m also going to take for granted that you’re just as concerned about nutrition as eating organic as much as is reasonable and fighting for clean water and air (heard about the jet fuel found in breastmilk?). Those things aside, I believe the most important concern for a vegan breastfeeding mother is FAT!

My first point of advice is to make sure you’re getting enough calories. We all know that breastfeeding can burn 200-500 calories a day. A vegan diet is naturally low-fat because we don’t consume the animal fats that omnivores do. I was dismayed at how quickly I lost my plump post-baby body; it took me a few months to realize that the demands of exclusive breastfeeding required me to be intentional about eating foods like avocados, soaked nuts, nut butters and coconut oil. Eating for two (or three or more), right?

The second thing to consider is vitamin B12. Actually, anyone struggling with energy might want to check on their vitamin B12 intake anyway. Low vitamin B12 levels can show itself as fatigue, memory loss, and/or depression. Vegans are particularly at-risk for B12 deficiency if we don’t eat foods that are fortified with it, like fortified cereals. I prefer to use nutritional yeast, which contains the B vitamins and has a nutty, yet malleable flavor. There are also claims that some coconut products, like coconut nectar, amino acids or vinegar have broad-spectrum B vitamins. I’ll wait for the studies before depending on them though.

Then, there’s vitamin D. There is lots of debate about which type of vitamin D is safe for vegans: D2 or D3. Most people get their vitamin D from the same place they get their B vitamins: fortified foods. Pretty much any milk (whether cow’s or almond) has vitamin D added to it. Since vitamin D is needed to help the body absorb calcium and maintain strong bones, you definitely don’t want to fool around here (you do like your teeth, right?). Even before pregnancy, I knew from having my blood examined that I was severely deficient in vitamin D3. I take great pains to get lots of sun exposure and ensure adequate vitamin D intake. For the record, most vitamin D3 supplements come from animal sources, while D2 does not, though your body will still have to convert it to D3.

I’m trusting you to consult your doctor, nutritionist or whatever health professionals you trust on these things. Still, from one breastfeeding mother to another, I want to push you past nutrition talk to remind you to take care of yourself. If you’re a first-time mother like I am, please get into the habit of making sure your support circle supports your health, as well as the baby’s. Breastfeeding should not be at your expense, no matter how much of a “sacrifice” it is. In my case, taking care of myself meant constantly being vocal and clear about my needs. My husband and visitors were gently reminded to help make sure I ate enough, ate well, stayed hydrated and rested. I had to remind my husband that SJ would get everything he needed from my breastmilk, but that I needed to be conscious of what I consumed. Not getting enough calcium, your body is smart enough to take it from your bones (teeth!). So, eating well and self-care are a breastfeeding mother’s protection.

Now, when you develop the magic equation for stress-free weaning, drop me a line on twitter: @anayahrose.

Anayah is a blogging mother, wife, doula, childbirth educator and aspiring midwife. She earned a M.S.Ed. in Urban Education and is active in her community around food and reproductive health justice. She co-edited the forthcoming “Free to Breastfeed: Voice from Black Mothers” and gives talks about breastfeeding and food justice. In addition to the FtB blog, she co-founded SoulVegFolk, a social network that connects and nurtures African descended families through healthy, eco-lifestyles, and writes a personal blog.

For more information on breastfeeding while vegan or vegetarian, see Kellymom's page on Vegetarian Diets & Breastfeeding.
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