Breastfeeding has all sorts of benefits for both mom and baby.
Not surprisingly, it is incredibly important to eat healthy while breastfeeding.
Breast milk is very nutritious and contains most of the nutrients your baby needs for the first 6 months of life.
Consequently, your needs for most nutrients are increased in order to meet this demand.
Healthy eating will also give you the energy you need to take care of yourself and your baby.
What’s more, eating healthy foods may help you shed the pregnancy weight faster.
This article explains everything you need to know about eating a healthy diet while breastfeeding.
Breast Milk is Very Nutritious
With the exception of vitamin D, breast milk contains everything a baby requires for proper development during the first six months of life.
The composition of breast milk is highly regulated, and your diet only has limited effects on the concentrations of some nutrients.
However, if your overall diet does not provide sufficient amounts of nutrients, it can affect both the quality of your breast milk and your own health.
Generally, an ounce (28 ml) of breast milk contains 19–23 calories, with 3.6–4.8% from protein, 28.8–32.4% from fat and 26.8–31.2% from carbs, mostly lactose.
Unlike baby formula, the calorie content and composition of breast milk varies. Breast milk changes during each feeding and throughout your lactation period, in order to meet the needs of your baby.
At the beginning of a feeding, the milk is more watery and usually quenches the baby’s thirst. The milk that comes later is thicker, higher in fat and more nutritious.
In fact, this milk may contain 2–3 times as much fat as milk from the beginning of a feeding, and 7–11 more calories per ounce.
Therefore, to get to the most nutritious milk, it’s important that your baby “empties” one breast before switching to the other.
BOTTOM LINE: Breast milk contains everything a baby needs for the first six months of life. Additionally, the fat and calorie content of breast milk changes both during a feeding and throughout the time you lactate.
Breastfeeding May Require More Calories
Making breast milk is hard work for your body.
It is estimated that breastfeeding increases your energy needs by about 500 calories per day.
You also have an increased need for most nutrients, so it’s very important to eat a healthy and varied diet.
You might be tempted to lose weight quickly after delivery, but you may need to be patient. It is completely normal to not lose any weight — or even gain some — during the first 3 months of breastfeeding.
Due to hormonal changes in your body, you may have a bigger appetite and be more prone to hold on to body fat.
Restricting calories too much, especially during the first few months of breastfeeding, may decrease both your milk supply and much-needed energy levels.
However, you will likely experience a spontaneous increase in fat burning after 3–6 months of breastfeeding and start losing more weight than mothers who don’t breastfeed.
Losing approximately 1.1 lbs (0.5 kg) per week through a combination of diet and exercise should not affect your milk supply or milk composition, assuming that you are not undernourished to begin with.
However, very thin women may be more sensitive to calorie restriction. They may need to eat abundantly to avoid a reduction in milk supply.
All in all, remember that losing weight after delivery is a marathon — not a sprint. It took you months to put on the weight, and it may take you months to lose it.
BOTTOM LINE: Breastfeeding increases your energy demands and appetite, so you may hold on to fat for the first 3 months. Calorie restriction and other weight loss methods may decrease your milk supply.
Eat Nutrient-Dense Foods
Your nutrient needs are greater while breastfeeding, both to fulfill the baby’s needs and your own.
The amounts of some nutrients in your diet may directly affect their presence in your breast milk.
On the other hand, some nutrients are transferred into breast milk regardless of your intake.
It is very important to eat a variety of nutritious, whole foods to ensure that you get all the nutrients you and your baby need.
Here are some nutritious foods you should eat while breastfeeding:
- Fish and seafood: Salmon, seaweed, shellfish and sardines.
- Meat: Beef, lamb, pork and organ meats, such as liver.
- Fruits and vegetables: Berries, tomatoes, cabbage, kale, garlic and broccoli.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds and flaxseeds.
- Other foods: Eggs, oats, potatoes, quinoa, buckwheat and dark chocolate.
However, this list is in no way limiting. Here is a longer list of 50 healthy foods.
Additionally, avoid processed foods as much as possible because they are usually high in calories, added sugars and unhealthy fats.
BOTTOM LINE:It is important to eat a variety of nutrient-dense, whole foods to meet the increased nutrient needs that accompany breastfeeding.
Make Sure to Get Plenty of These Nutrients
The nutrients in breast milk may be categorized into two groups, depending on the extent to which they are secreted into the milk.
The amounts of group 1 nutrients in breast milk depend on dietary intake, while group 2 nutrients are secreted into breast milk regardless of intake or health status.
Therefore, getting enough group 1 nutrients is very important for both you and your baby, while getting enough group 2 nutrients is mostly important for you.
Group 1 Nutrients
Below are the group 1 nutrients and some common food sources:
- Vitamin B1 (Thiamin): Fish, pork, seeds, nuts and bread.
- Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): Cheese, almonds, nuts, red meat, oily fish and eggs.
- Vitamin B6: Seeds, nuts, fish, poultry, pork, bananas and dried fruit.
- Vitamin B12: Shellfish, liver, oily fish, crab and shrimp.
- Choline: Eggs, beef liver, chicken liver, fish and peanuts.
- Vitamin A: Sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy greens, organ meats and eggs.
- Vitamin D: Cod liver oil, oily fish, some mushrooms and fortified foods.
- Selenium: Brazil nuts, seafood, fish, whole wheat and seeds.
- Iodine: Dried seaweed, cod, milk and iodized salt.
The amounts of group 1 nutrients are substantially reduced in breast milk if you are deficient or don’t get adequate amounts from your diet.
For this reason, it is important for you and your baby that you get sufficient amounts of these nutrients from your diet or supplements.
Group 2 Nutrients
Below are the group 2 nutrients and some common food sources:
- Folate: Beans, lentils, leafy greens, asparagus and avocados.
- Calcium: Milk, yogurt, cheese, leafy greens and legumes.
- Iron: Red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, beans, green vegetables and dried fruit.
- Copper: Shellfish, whole grains, nuts, beans, organ meats and potatoes.
- Zinc: Oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts and dairy.
The amounts of group 2 nutrients in breast milk are unaffected by your dietary intake or body stores.
If your intake is low, your body will take these nutrients from your own bone and tissue stores to secrete into your breast milk.
Therefore, your baby will always get the right amount. However, your body stores will become depleted if you don’t get adequate amounts from your diet.
To avoid becoming deficient, these nutrients must come from your diet or supplements.
BOTTOM LINE: Group 1 nutrients will benefit both you and your baby, while group 2 nutrients will prevent you from becoming deficient yourself.
You May Benefit From Certain Supplements
You should always be skeptical when it comes to supplements, especially when breastfeeding.
Many supplements contain herbs, stimulants and active substances that may be transferred to your milk.
However, there are several supplements that may benefit breastfeeding mothers. These include:
Some women may lack key nutrients. This may be due to pregnancy-related nausea, food aversions or a habitual lack of variation in the diet.
For this reason, some breastfeeding mothers may benefit from a multivitamin.
Supplementing with vitamin B12 is not always effective. If you are deficient, then talk to your doctor about good methods for increasing your levels (7).
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an essential long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that is mainly found in seafood, including fatty fish and algae.
It is an important component of the central nervous system, skin and eyes. DHA is vital for healthy brain development and function.
Adding DHA to baby formula has also been shown to improve vision in babies.
If your intake is low, then the amount in your breast milk will also be low.
Early-life omega-3 deficiency has been linked to several behavioral problems, such as ADHA, learning disabilities and aggressiveness.
Therefore, it is recommended that pregnant and breastfeeding women take at least 2.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids and 100–300 mg of DHA daily.
Vitamin D is mainly found in fatty fish, fish liver oils and fortified foods. It’s very important for overall health, especially bone health and immune function.
Vitamin D is usually only present in low amounts in breast milk, especially when sun exposure is limited.
Therefore, vitamin D drops are usually recommended for babies from the age of 2–4 weeks.
Women who have very high intakes of vitamin D (more than 6,000 IU daily) are more likely to provide their babies with adequate amounts of it from their breast milk. Note that this amount is much higher than the recommended daily amount.
Furthermore, a vitamin D deficiency can have serious consequences. You may experience muscle weakness, bone loss and an increased risk of fractures.
A vitamin D deficiency in early childhood may cause seizures, rickets and muscle weakness. It is also linked to the development of several diseases.
BOTTOM LINE:Some lactating women may benefit from taking multivitamins, vitamin B12, omega-3 or vitamin D supplements.
Drink Plenty of Water
It’s normal to be thirstier than usual when you are breastfeeding, due to an increased amount of the hormone oxytocin.
When your baby latches onto your breast, your oxytocin levels increase. This causes your milk to start flowing.
This also stimulates thirst, so that you drink enough water to meet the increased requirements for milk production.
There is no set amount of water you should drink daily.
As a rule of thumb, you should always drink when you are thirsty and until you have quenched your thirst.
However, if you feel very tired, faint or as if your milk production is decreasing, you may need to drink more water. The best way to tell if you are drinking enough water is the color and smell of your urine.
If it is dark yellow and has a strong smell, then you may have to drink more water.
BOTTOM LINE: Increased amounts of oxytocin stimulate thirst while breastfeeding. This ensures you drink enough water to meet the increased fluid requirements of milk production.
The general rule is that you can eat anything in moderation while breastfeeding.
However, some flavors from food, spices or beverages may be reflected in your breast milk. If you find that your baby becomes fussy or ill shortly after a feeding, it may be because of something you ate.
Nevertheless, you should not make any significant changes to your diet without consulting a doctor or registered dietitian / nutritionist.
Below are a few things that should only be consumed occasionally or cautiously when you are breastfeeding.
About 1% of the caffeine you consume is transferred to breast milk. It takes babies much longer to metabolize caffeine.
Moderate amounts of coffee and caffeinated beverages have not been shown to cause harm, but they may affect the baby’s sleep.
Therefore, it is recommended that breastfeeding women limit their coffee intake to about 2–3 cups per day.
Alcohol also makes its way into breast milk. The concentration resembles the amount found in the mother’s blood.
However, babies metabolize alcohol at only half the rate of adults.
Alcohol consumption is usually measured in units, where one unit equals 10 ml of pure alcohol. The alcohol units of common drinks are:
- A small glass of wine (11–13%): 1.5–2 units.
- A large beer (4–5%): 2–2.5 units.
- One shot of spirits (40%): 3.3 units.
On average, it takes your body about 1–2 hours to clear each unit of alcohol.
Therefore, you’ll want to wait a few hours for each drink you’ve consumed before breastfeeding your baby.
Approximately 2–6% of children may be allergic to cow’s milk protein from their mother’s diet, and may develop rashes, eczema, diarrhea, bloody stools, vomiting or baby colic.
The only cure is to exclude all cow’s milk protein from your diet for 2–4 weeks if you wish to continue breastfeeding.
If your baby’s symptoms improve, try eating high amounts of cow’s milk protein again for one week. If the symptoms don’t return, then the baby may have outgrown its intolerance to cow’s milk protein.
However, if the symptoms do return, then you will have to eliminate cow’s milk from your diet and supplement with calcium until the baby is 9–12 months old.
If the symptoms are severe, then you should always consult with a doctor.
BOTTOM LINE: Breastfeeding women should limit their intake of caffeine and alcohol. Some babies may be allergic to cow’s milk protein in their mother’s diet.
Take Home Message
You do have a higher need for calories and most nutrients while breastfeeding.
If you’re not getting enough from your diet, then this can negatively affect the quality of your breast milk. It can also be bad for your own health.
Therefore, it’s more important than ever to eat a variety of healthy, nutritious foods.