A healthy diet during breastfeeding supports both mother and baby as they transition through the first weeks and months together. There is no need for a special diet when nursing, rather focusing on a healthful diet high in nutrients. Each woman's milk is uniquely suited to the health of their baby and the composition changes over time. While the body knows what to do, there are some tips that mothers can use to create a successful breastfeeding diet plan to support her health as well as her child's and even aid in post-pregnancy weight loss.
Breastfeeding Diet: The Basics
The breastfeeding diet is similar to the diet recommended for pregnancy; calorie and nutrient dense are the most important factors. Caloric intake should continue approximately 500 calories daily above pre-pregnancy levels. These calories should come from healthful, whole foods such as fresh produce, whole grains, plant-based fats and unprocessed protein sources.
Choose a wide variety of differently colored fruits and vegetables as these colors represent different health benefits. When choosing carbohydrates, whole grains are best. Oats, brown rice, whole wheat, quinoa and other unprocessed grains offer fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Unprocessed protein sources like fresh meat and fish, beans or legumes, eggs, dairy foods and soy foods should be included at every meal and snack. Healthy fats are dense in calories; choose nuts and seeds, avocado, olives and plant oils daily. Beverage consumption is also very important. Any breastfeeding diet plan should include plenty of water. Current recommendations suggest drinking to your thirst or at least eight glasses of water per day.
Because the flavors of foods a mother consumes are transferred through the milk, babies can enjoy getting to know the taste of garlic, vegetables and spicy food if it is a part of the maternal diet. If a baby is particularly colicky or irritated, it may be worth experimenting excluding certain foods to see if they could be causing an issue, as every baby is different. A food journal can be helpful when associating problematic foods during breastfeeding. Signs of a more serious problem or allergic reaction include diarrhea or a rash and should be evaluated by a doctor.
A vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthful while breastfeeding as long as special attention is given to meeting iron, protein, essential fatty acid and calcium needs. A mother with any dietary restriction or limitation should work with their doctor or dietitian to ensure they are getting all the nutrients required for nursing.
Foods to Avoid
Compounds in the foods nursing mothers consume can be transferred through breastmilk to a child. Caffeine and alcohol, for example, do get incorporated into breastmilk. Be aware of any herbs or supplements you consider taking; mothers should not consume these types of products without a doctor's consent. Mercury in fish continues to be cautioned when breastfeeding, though the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does recommend including 8-12 ounces of low mercury fish weekly. High mercury fish to avoid include tilefish, shark, swordfish, king mackerel and white or albacore tuna limited to 6 ounces per week.
Breastfeeding Diet and Weight Loss
Breastfeeding can aid in natural postpartum weight loss. Caloric restriction is not recommended during breastfeeding; rather, weight loss can occur even with the slight increase in calories suggested during breastfeeding. Be sure to limit foods that are low in nutrients and high in calories or sugar like soda, juice, candy, desserts or fried foods. Weight loss during breastfeeding may not be rapid, but most mothers can expect to lose weight slowly in the first 3-6 months which can continue for the duration of breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests breastfeeding for at least 12 months if possible, for optimal health of mother and baby.
Gentle exercise may be introduced with medical clearance after delivery and is not expected to have negative effects on the breast milk. The American College of Obstetrics Gynecologists recommends resuming physical activity as soon as physically and medically safe after delivery. Benefits of physical activity include increased bone health for mothers and accelerated post-partum weight loss. Remember, weight loss medications or supplements are not recommended.
Ginger Hultin, MS, RD, LDN is a Chicago-based dietitian who specializes in integrative oncology. With a Master's degree from naturopathic Bastyr University, she practices plant-based nutrition and specializes in lab interpretation and appropriate supplementation. Ginger also had a passion for fitness and maintains both group fitness and personal training certifications.