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The Best Food for Breastfeeding: What to Eat While Feeding Your Baby

An image of a young mother breastfeeding her babyA lot of women don’t know how energy-consuming breastfeeding can be. It can burn up to 500 calories a day to produce enough milk to feed a growing baby. That means you’ll want to make sure you eat enough during this demanding period, for your own wellbeing as well as for your baby’s. In this article, we’ll cover the best kinds of food for breastfeeding, as well as some general tips for supporting your body during this time.

Breastfeeding Is Good For Moms Too

You probably already know all the benefits of breastfeeding for your baby, so we won’t get into those here. But there are tons of benefits of breastfeeding for you, too, including:

  • Weight loss: Since it will burn up to 500 calories a day to breastfeed, you may end up losing some of that pregnancy weight you gained over the last nine months. This isn’t guaranteed for all women, and it usually begins after the first three months of breastfeeding. Though a benefit, do not restrict your food intake when breastfeeding in order to speed up the process, since you and your baby really do need adequate nutrition at this time.
  • Decreased risk of postpartum depression: Around 15% of new mothers experience postpartum depression (PPD), and many of them report that part of this PPD involves feeling disconnected from the baby and guilty for not being as attached as they’d like to be. Breastfeeding can counteract these problems because it helps produce oxytocin, the feel-good bonding chemical that can make you more relaxed and more connected to your baby.
  • Less postpartum blood loss: During and after giving birth, you will go through several days or weeks of losing blood, similar to menstruation, but likely with heavier flow. Oxytocin helps reduce this blood loss, which can make the recovery process faster and more comfortable for you.
  • Faster uterine contraction: When you’re pregnant, your uterus stretches to accommodate the growing life inside of you. After birth, it takes time for the uterus to go back to its pre-pregnancy size. Oxytocin, again, is the chemical that saves the day by speeding up this process, which is called “involution.”
  • Reduced disease risk: Breastfeeding antibodies reduce disease risk for babies, but it can also do the same for you. The longer you breastfeed, the bigger the reduction in certain disease risks, such as ovarian cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
  • Protection against another pregnancy: Breastfeeding can postpone ovulation and menstruation, making you less likely to get pregnant again right after having a baby. It’s still important to use protection to ensure you don’t have another pregnancy before your family is ready, but breastfeeding gives you the added benefit of a longer rest period before you have a menstrual cycle to deal with again along with your new baby.

By watching your nutrition and incorporating certain food for breastfeeding, you can also make this time really count towards your overall physical and mental health.

Essential Food for Breastfeeding: Diet Guidelines

Human breast milk contains around 60-75 kcal/100 ml, and it’s made up of 6.9-7.2% carbohydrates (counted as lactose), 3-5% fat, 0.8-0.9% protein, and 0.2% minerals called ash. It has much more carbohydrates and much less protein than colostrum, which is the first milk you produce right after giving birth.

As you can see, you’ll want to make sure that you get enough protein, carbohydrates, and fat, as well as all the different vitamins and minerals that your breast milk needs in order to provide the right nutrients and composition for your baby. The high fat content of breastmilk also means you shouldn’t be following any kind of low-fat diet at this time. In fact, you shouldn’t be doing any type of “dieting” for weight loss while breastfeeding.

By following the guidelines on the best food for breastfeeding below, you’ll not only provide the best breast milk for your baby, you’ll probably also end up losing excess weight in the process.

However, it’s worth noting that you don’t have to follow a perfect diet to produce quality breast milk. This diet benefits your health as much or more than your baby’s, especially if you have been under stress. So don’t let feeling pressured to follow a perfect diet make you want to stop breastfeeding.

  1. Eat More Protein.An image of a variety of protein rich foods Protein is not only great food for breastfeeding, because your baby needs protein in breastmilk to grow, but it’s also very important for your recovery. You should get between 55 and 67 grams a day, or at least three servings a day. That can include lean meats, such as poultry, beef, and fish, as well as dairy products, beans, and legumes.You’ll want to avoid high-mercury fish, just as you did when pregnant, so don’t eat shark, mackerel, albacore tuna, or solid white tuna. You no longer have to worry about sushi though, and you can eat different types of shellfish. Seafood will help you get the omega-3 fatty acids your body and your baby need.
  2. The other precaution you may need to take is with dairy. Some babies are allergic to dairy products, so if your baby is one of them, you should cut them out of your diet while breastfeeding.

  3. Get Enough Calcium. Probably the most important food for breastfeeding is food that contains calcium, not only for your baby’s sake, but also to protect your bones, since breastmilk can take the calcium from your bones if you’re not getting enough of it from your diet. The usual recommendation for nursing mothers is 1000 mg per day.Dairy is probably one of the easiest ways to meet this requirement. For example, an 8 oz container of yogurt will have around 300 mg of calcium. But, again, if you or your baby don’t tolerate dairy well, then there are other great sources of calcium, such as fortified non-dairy milk, blackstrap molasses, fortified juice, rhubarb, and collard greens.

    You’ll most likely be continuing to take your prenatal vitamins while breastfeeding, and many prenatal vitamins contain calcium as well.

  4. Get Enough Iron. Although breast milk doesn’t contain a lot of iron, pregnancy leeched a lot from your system already, and if you were not supplementing or eating enough iron-rich foods, it probably left you somewhat deficient. It’s also important to compensate for the loss of blood that comes with birth, so you’ll have to be very conscious of your iron levels.Iron-rich foods such as liver (and other organ meats), shellfish, dark leafy greens, tofu, beans, lentils, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, red meat, and turkey are all good options. One or more servings should be adequate. Try to eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C to increase its absorption.

    If you’re moderately or severely iron-deficient, you may need to take an iron supplement, but only do so if recommended by your doctor, and make sure to keep the supplements out of reach of children.

  5. Don’t Forget Your Greens. Of course, no list of “best food for breastfeeding” would be complete without the ultimate health food: greens. Three or more servings of green leafy vegetables, including those dark greens that are full of iron, will provide you with a lot of important nutrients, not only to support your baby, but for you to recover and have energy as well.Some examples include spinach, kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, collard greens, and rhubarb. Herbs such as parsley, cilantro, and basil are also a great addition to the mix. You can either eat your greens raw, add them to smoothies, or steam them. Try to avoid overcooking them so they don’t lose too many vitamins.
  6. Eat More Fruits. Fruits are another great type of food for breastfeeding, so try to aim for a serving or two a day. Nutrient-dense fruits tend to be the ones that have a deep color throughout, not just on the skin.Many fruits will also contain vitamin C, which is an antioxidant powerhouse that can help fight free radicals and oxidative stress in your body. It also helps boost your immune system so you can keep breastfeeding your baby without the added stress of a cold or flu (though these can be inevitable, depending on the season and if you have other kids running around).
  7. Don’t Discount Carbs.An image of various carb rich foods It’s been a topic of contention lately: are carbs friend or foe? As you saw from the breast milk composition breakdown above, your baby needs carbohydrates, and you do too. Unless you’re doing low-carb for health reasons, rather than for weight loss, getting three or more servings of complex carbohydrates, such as those found in whole grains, will give you the energy and calories you need to keep breastfeeding.You should, however, avoid simple and refined carbohydrates (those are not good food for breastfeeding or for any health purpose). Refined and simple carbohydrates, like those in white flour, sugar, and some breakfast cereal, can make blood sugar levels unstable and get you into the spikes and crashes roller-coaster that can really take a toll on your body and mind.
  8. Eat Healthy Fats for Healthy Milk. Breast milk is full of fat, and your baby needs that fat to feel satiated and to grow. Your body has been storing fat during pregnancy and also during early breastfeeding to provide that rich, full-fat milk for breastfeeding.That doesn’t mean you should indulge in greasy, fried, or drenched-in-oil foods. It means you should eat nuts, seeds, avocados, fatty fish, and olives. You can also drizzle a moderate amount of olive oil on your salads and vegetables.
  9. Stay Hydrated. And, last but not least, you must make sure you are well hydrated throughout the day. This is even more important while nursing since you lose a lot of water through breastmilk. Pure, filtered water is best, but herbal teas are okay too. Coffee and sodas don’t count as they can actually leave you less hydrated than before. Also, stick to the caffeine limits you kept during pregnancy during early breastfeeding, as caffeine comes out in your milk and it takes a long time for babies to process it.

Stress Relief Tips For Moms

Balancing life with a new baby can be difficult, to say the least, and this puts a lot of stress on you. Chronic stress, such as what happens when you are constantly shorting yourself on sleep to meet a tiny person’s needs, for example, can easily put your body into adrenal fatigue. And stress like this can also reduce your milk quality, to say nothing of your quality of life and your ability to take care of your baby. So it is important to understand how to this kind of stress can develop and how to avoid it.

All of the above guidelines on the best food for breastfeeding follow the rules of an adrenal fatigue diet, which is an excellent way to prevent or recover from adrenal fatigue.

When your body is under a lot of stress, such as what happens with pregnancy, birth, and motherhood when you’re not getting enough rest, sleep, or time for yourself, your adrenals have to work overtime to produce cortisol, your body’s main anti-stress hormone.

Although your body is well-equipped to handle stress, if you’re also under chronic stress from other circumstances in your life, such as dealing with a chronic illness, work problems, financial difficulties, or recurring infections, you’ll be vulnerable to getting Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). Symptoms of AFS include fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, loss of libido, hair loss, anxiety, mild depression, infertility, PMS, hypoglycemia, heart palpitations, dry skin, and brain fog, among others.

The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response is your body’s global response to stress, and it’s composed of six circuits of organs and systems that work together to fight stress. The adrenal glands are part of the Hormone circuit, which is the circuit that is most affected by pregnancy, birth, and nursing. So you might realize that many of the symptoms of AFS resemble some of the ones you’re struggling with lately. That may or may not be a sign of AFS, so it’s always best to check with an experienced professional.

An image of a woman eating vegetables with the refrigerator openEven if you do have AFS or some kind of dysregulation in your NEM system, you can still get support for recovery while breastfeeding. And the adrenal fatigue diet is one way to ensure you get the type of food for breastfeeding you need while also providing your adrenals and system with the nutrients that best serve recovery.

New mothers often experience a lot of stress, so don’t feel that, just because motherhood is natural and beautiful, it has to be easy and you have to do it all by yourself. Taking care of your health and wellbeing, including your nutrition, exercise, sleep, and mental health, requires extra support and guidance, especially at first, so allow yourself to get it. And if you are unable to incorporate the best food for breastfeeding immediately, give yourself some grace and try again tomorrow. There’s no perfect way to handle such a delicate and transformative time in your life.

© Copyright 2020 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Nursing your baby can also be an opportunity to improve your own health, vitality, and wellbeing by eating healthy, nutritious meals. Just make sure to incorporate the best food for breastfeeding so you can get maximum benefit for yourself and also support your baby’s growth.

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