How Much Calcium Do Breast-Feeding Moms Need?

How Much Calcium Do Breast-Feeding Moms Need?

In countries where dairy products are seldom used, calcium intakes are often lower than recommendations. These countries may give us some idea of the effects of a vegan diet that may be lower in calcium than most. One such country is Gambia where breast-feeding women's calcium intakes are less than 300 milligrams a day. Most authorities currently recommend 1200 milligrams of calcium daily during breast-feeding. A concern is that if dietary calcium is not adequate, breast milk will not contain enough calcium for the growing infant. Another concern is that calcium in breast milk will be normal but the mother's bones may suffer due to their releasing calcium to meet milk production needs.

In the region of Gambia studied, women have a diet based on rice, millet, groundnuts, and fish. Some women received a calcium supplement to see if it would have a beneficial effect. It did not. Supplementation of 714 milligrams of calcium daily did not affect either the amount of calcium in breast milk or the mothers' bones. Supplementation also had no effect on how well calcium was absorbed.

Gambian women, three months after having given birth, absorbed more than 50% of calcium, while women in the United Kingdom who were used to higher calcium intakes absorbed only about 32 percent of calcium. Gambian women's milk was lower in calcium than that of women in the United Kingdom. There was no difference in bones.

These studies suggest that breast-feeding women on low calcium intakes are able to compensate somewhat by absorbing more calcium. Taking calcium supplements during breast-feeding does not appear to be especially helpful for these women. The authors suggest that the calcium intake during pregnancy may have more influence than calcium intake during breast-feeding on the amount of calcium in breast milk.

While these results are quite interesting, vegans should not assume that they can have very low calcium intakes during breast feeding. Certainly women in Gambia have had low calcium intakes for many generations and may more easily compensate for low intakes than women who have only recently reduced their intake of calcium. In addition, other factors such as amount of exercise and dietary protein and sodium have not been reported; so we don't know whether other factors influence the calcium needs of women in Gambia. These results do raise questions about calcium needs during breast-feeding.

Prentice, A., Jarjou, L.M.A., Cole, T.J., et al. 1995. Calcium requirements of lactating Gambian mothers: effects of a calcium supplement on breast-milk calcium concentration, maternal bone mineral content, and urinary calcium excretion. Am J Clin Nutr 62:58-67.

Fairweather-Tait, S., Prentice, A., Heumann, K.G., et al. 1995. Effect of calcium supplements and stage of lactation on the calcium absorption efficiency of lactating women accustomed to low calcium intakes. Am J Clin Nutr 62:1188-1192.

The Vegetarian Resource Group, Inc.

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By Reed Mangels

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