Breastfeeding is healthy for babies and mothers alike. Foods you eat can affect the quality of breast milk you produce. For that reason, it’s necessary to make diet-related adjustments. Do you need to follow a special diet for breastfeeding? Are there any foods to avoid or eat specifically? You’ll get answers to these, and other questions you may have, throughout the post below.
Impact of Nutrition on Breast Milk
While it’s easy to think milk will be there regardless of what you eat, the truth is that nutrition matters a lot for breastfeeding mothers.
Studies confirm the dietary pattern of mothers is associated with the macronutrient composition of breast milk (1). For that reason, the foods you eat pose as the foundation for improving the health of your child.
A healthy diet promotes your health, supports energy levels, prevents a wide range of health conditions, and more. At the same time, your dietary pattern allows the baby to get all the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
Breast milk contains everything the baby needs for proper development during the first six months of their life. All nutrients except vitamin D!
Evidence shows breast milk is composed of the following:
- 87% water
- 7% carbohydrate (lactose)
- 3.8% fat
- 1.0% protein
Breast milk delivers 60 to 75 calories per 100ml (2). It’s useful to mention breast milk composition is dynamic and changes over time to adapt to the changing nutritional needs of the growing baby. Moreover, breast milk contains various bioactive agents that modify the function of the immune system, gastrointestinal tract, and positively influence brain development.
Despite its great importance, this subject is poorly studied and further research is necessary to evaluate the true impact of maternal nutrition on breast milk (3).
Do I Need to Eat More Calories When Breastfeeding?
New mothers often wonder whether their calorie intake needs to change when breastfeeding. The short answer would be – yes, it does. But let’s get into specifics.
Breastfeeding mothers need more calories in order to meet nutritional needs when breastfeeding their babies. According to the CDC, increasing calorie intake by 450 to 500 kilocalories (kcal) is considered healthy if you are well-nourished. That would mean, your daily calorie intake would be 2300 to 2500 kcal. On the flip side, moderately-active non-pregnant women who aren’t breastfeeding usually need 1800 to 200kcal a day (4).
When it comes to calorie intake you need to remember one thing – there is no “one size fits all” rule. Your calorie intake depends on several factors ranging from age to activity levels, body mass index (BMI), and extent of breastfeeding. The latter refers to whether you’re breastfeeding exclusively or do both breastfeeding and formula feeding.
The Best Approach to Maternal Diet
A specific eating program for breastfeeding mothers doesn’t exist. Instead, the goal is to modify your eating regimen so that both you and your baby can thrive. The need for certain nutrients increases together with higher calorie intake requirements. These nutrients include vitamin D, protein, vitamins A, C, E, B12, zinc, and selenium among others.
So, what should your diet look like? These tips can help you out (5):
- Eat protein foods two to three times a day e.g. meat, poultry, eggs, beans, dairy, nuts, and seeds
- Enrich your daily diet with whole grains such as whole-wheat pasta, breads, and oatmeal
- Consume two servings of fruit a day
- Eat three servings of vegetables including yellow vegetables and dark greens
- Focus on healthy fats such as avocados, coconut oil, olive oil
- Include fiber-rich starches into your diet e.g. potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squashes, lentils, beans, quinoa, buckwheat
What we can conclude here is that consuming nutrient-dense foods is the right thing to do for breastfeeding mothers. You’re not limited to these foods only, though. There are many other healthful foods you can eat including dark chocolate, sauerkraut, kimchi, among others.
Group 1 and Group 2 Nutrients
When modifying a maternal diet you need to pay close attention to specific vitamins and minerals. We can categorize them into two groups based on the extent of their secretion in breast milk.
Group 1 nutrients are particularly important. If you are deficient in these vitamins and minerals their concentration in breast milk will also reduce. Enriching your diet with these micronutrients increases their presence in breast milk and improves the baby’s health. Group 1 micronutrients and their sources include:
- Vitamin A: Carrots, sweet potatoes, eggs, organ meats, dark leafy greens
- Thiamin (vitamin B1): Nuts, seeds, beans
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2): Almonds, nuts, cheese, red meat, eggs, oily fish
- Vitamin B6: Potatoes, bananas, nuts, poultry, dried fruits
- Vitamin B12: Liver, shellfish, yogurt, shrimp, crab
- Vitamin D: Cod liver oil, fortified foods, some mushrooms
- Choline : Chicken and beef livers, peanuts, eggs
- Iodine: Milk, iodized salt, dried seaweed
- Selenium: Turkey, Brazil nuts, seeds, whole wheat
Unlike micronutrients from Group 1, levels of nutrients from Group 2 in breast milk are generally unaffected by body stores or consumption. If you don’t consume enough, the body will obtain these nutrients from tissue stores and bones to compensate and secrete them into breast milk. That means the baby will keep receiving the right amount of these vitamins and minerals.
Supplementation with these vitamins, i.e. their intake in the diet, won’t change their levels in breast milk but they can replenish nutrient stores and improve your health. After all, if you don’t consume enough of Group 2 nutrients you may reach the state of deficiency (6). Nutritional deficiencies are common but induce a wide spectrum of symptoms that jeopardize your health.
Group 2 vitamins and minerals include:
- Calcium: Milk, cheese, legumes, leafy greens
- Copper: Whole grains, shellfish, organ meats, beans, nuts
- Folate (vitamin B9): Leafy greens, avocadoes, asparagus, legumes
- Iron: Red meat, poultry, dried fruit, green vegetables, beans
- Zinc: Red meat, poultry, oysters, dairy, beans, nuts
Useful Foods to Eat and Why
As seen above, various foods belong to the maternal diet. We’re going to focus on some examples below.
Avocado is a nutritional powerhouse we need in our lives, even more so if you’re breastfeeding. A common problem for many breastfeeding mothers is increased appetite. Remember, your nutritional needs increase at this time. But you may still be worried about eating too much. Avocado can be helpful here because it suppresses appetite.
With nine calories per gram, avocado is a source of healthy fat which fills you up quickly and helps control hunger. Moreover, avocado is a good source of oleic acid, which provides additional benefit on appetite suppressing properties of the fruit (7).
Yet another reason to eat avocado is that it makes your diet healthier. Studies show avocado intake is linked to improved overall diet quality, nutritional intake, and lower metabolic syndrome risk (8).
Avocados happen to be a great source of different nutrients including dietary fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamins A, C, E, K, B6, and folate.
Green Leafy Vegetables
Green leafy vegetables are a good source of vitamins and minerals such as folate, calcium, and iron. Riboflavin and beta carotene are also found in green leafy vegetables. You may want to consume one or two portions of these vegetables a day in order to enhance lactation (9).
Examples of vegetables that belong to the group include spinach, kale, collard greens, romaine lettuce, watercress, just to name a few.
Breastfeeding mothers should consume about 1000mg of calcium a day. While dairy remains one of the best sources of calcium, other foods including some mushrooms can be helpful too (10). Additionally, mushrooms are a good source of beta-glucan, a type of sugar considered the primary lactation agent responsible for the galactagogue properties of mushrooms. The term galactagogue refers to plants or synthetic molecules that induce, maintain, or increase milk production (11).
This area requires a lot of research, but since other beta glucan-containing foods such as oats and barley have lactogenic potential it’s not that difficult to presume mushrooms could too. The highest levels of beta-glucan are observed in shiitake, reishi, maitake, shimeji, and oyster mushrooms.
Fiber-rich legumes can be good for the digestive system and also happen to be a great source of protein and iron. Chickpeas have been used for their galactagogue properties for centuries. While chickpeas are the most commonly used galactagogue legume you can use other varieties as well. For example, of all beans soybeans have the biggest phytoestrogen content. Eating various legumes benefits your milk supply, but also delivers a wide range of nutrients.
Nuts are a nutritional powerhouse abundant in minerals such as zinc, iron, and calcium. But they also deliver other important nutrients we need to function properly. For example, nuts are a good source of fiber and fat, as well as protein. They contain Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids (12). Many new moms are worried consuming nuts is unsafe, even if they have no history of nut allergy. It’s generally considered safe for women with no history of food allergies to consume common allergens such as nuts when breastfeeding (13). In fact, their nutritional profile could be beneficial to your general health.
Carrots are a healthy snack and it’s all thanks to the amazing nutritional profile. What many people don’t know is that carrots are a wonderful addition to a maternal diet. You see, they are abundant in beta-carotene and vitamin A. Drinking carrot juice before lunch can increase milk supply in the afternoon (14). When it comes to carrots, making fresh juice on your own is more beneficial. Stick to moderate consumption, though.
Seeds are abundant in protein and minerals such as zinc, calcium, and iron. While their lactogenic properties aren’t studied, people have been using seeds to improve breast milk supply for centuries. For example, drinking three cups of fenugreek tea a day can lead to a significant increase in breast milk output. Fennel seeds are also known for lactogenic effects and are a popular ingredient in supplements meant to improve the production of breast milk. Fennel intake while breastfeeding can increase volume and fat content in breast milk. It also helps your baby gain more weight (15). Sesame seeds can also increase milk production and deliver much-needed calcium.
Oatmeal is one of the best foods for increasing breast milk supply. Furthermore, oatmeal is a decent source of nutrients important for mothers and babies alike. Some of these nutrients are zinc, iron, magnesium, and fiber. The iron content of oatmeal is responsible for its potential to boost milk supply. You see, low iron levels reduce the milk supply in mothers.
Foods That Breastfeeding Mothers Should Avoid
New mothers have a wide range of foods at their disposal and many of them can increase breast milk supply. That said, there are some foods you should avoid or reduce their consumption. They include:
- Alcohol: Keep in mind there is no level of alcohol in breast milk that is deemed safe for the baby. Strive to avoid alcohol entirely when breastfeeding.
- Seafood: Fish is a source of important nutrients, but you need to be careful here. Seafood may contain mercury or other contaminants. You may want to avoid excessive intake. Moreover, opt for low-mercury alternatives and eat a variety of fish (16). Seafood sources that are low in mercury include salmon, sardines, catfish, canned light tuna, scallops, shrimp, lobster, clams, among others.
- Caffeine: It can pass from mother to a baby in small amounts through breast milk. Usually, caffeine doesn’t harm the baby when a mother consumes a low-to-moderate amount of caffeine. But you may want to be careful and avoid drinking too much coffee.
Do I Need to Take Multivitamins?
Not every breastfeeding mother needs multivitamins and other supplements. Some women do. These products could be practical for mothers who adhere to restrictive diets. Diets that eliminate different food groups prevent you from obtaining many nutrients that are equally beneficial for you and your baby. In these cases, supplementation is a good way to obtain those nutrients you don’t eat.
For example, the best sources of vitamin B12 are animal-based foods. Vegans and vegetarians don’t eat these foods and their infants have a limited amount of vitamin B12 in their bodies. Low levels of vitamin B12 put a baby at the risk of deficiency which may induce neurological damage. Supplementation is the answer here. Moreover, supplementation could also be useful if your diet doesn’t provide sufficient amounts of certain nutrients.
Remember, you need to consult your doctor first. Avoid buying and using supplements without a doctor’s input on the subject.
Breastfeeding has many benefits; which is why it’s important to focus on a healthy diet. Depletion of some nutrients in the body could also decrease their concentration in breast milk. The best diet for breastfeeding moms is simple – you need to focus on nutrient-dense foods that provide proteins, vitamins, minerals, and promote milk supply. You may be tempted to reduce calorie intake while breastfeeding in an attempt to slim down, but during this time your calorie consumption increases. Weight loss may be slow at this point, but the focus here is on improving your health. You’ll be glad to know breastfeeding actually promotes weight loss in the long run.