A cross-sectional study of fatty acids and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in human milk from lactating women following vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore diets



Essential fatty acids are critical for brain growth and neurodevelopment in infancy. Maternal diet and supplement use have a significant impact on the fat composition of human milk. The objective of this study is to assess supplement utilization patterns and fatty acid and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) concentrations in the breast milk of women following vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore diet patterns.


This is a cross-sectional, observational study of 74 lactating women in the United States following a vegan (n = 26), vegetarian (n = 22), or omnivore (n = 26) diet pattern. A single breast milk sample was collected from each participant and assessed for fatty acids and BDNF.


Median unsaturated fatty acids in the breast milk of vegan, vegetarian, and omnivores, as a percentage of total fatty acids, was 66.0, 57.8, and 56.2%, respectively (p < 0.001). Total omega-3 percentages were 2.29% for vegans, 1.55% for vegetarians, and 1.46% for omnivores (p < 0.001). Docosahexaenoic acid percentages were not different by diet pattern, but over 80% of participants had milk concentrations below 0.30% of total fatty acids. Reports of omega-3 supplements use (10/74) and weekly seafood consumption (3/74) were limited. BDNF was not detectable in any samples.


Breast milk from vegans had significantly higher unsaturated fat and total omega-3 fats, and lower saturated fats, trans fats, and omega-6 to omega-3 ratios than their vegetarian and omnivore counterparts. Docosahexaenoic acid concentrations in breast milk were low regardless of maternal diet pattern, and were reflective of low seafood intake and supplement use.

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Alpha-linolenic acid


Brain derived neurotrophic factor


Basic screening questionnaire


Docosahexaenoic acid


Eicosapentaenoic acid


Linoleic acid (LA)


Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids


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This research received funding from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Vegetarian Nutrition Dietary Practice Group.

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MTP and RP designed the study. MTP, RP, LLD, AC and LF conducted research. MTP analyzed data and wrote paper. MTP has primary responsibility for final content. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Maryanne T. Perrin.

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On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

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Perrin, M.T., Pawlak, R., Dean, L.L. et al. A cross-sectional study of fatty acids and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in human milk from lactating women following vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore diets. Eur J Nutr 58, 2401–2410 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-018-1793-z

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  • Human milk
  • Breast milk
  • Brain derived neurotrophic factor
  • Docosahexaenoic acid
  • Vegetarian
  • Vegan