Breastfeeding can be a tricky time to get a nutritious diet, whilst juggling a newborn AND trying to get some sleep.
You might feel so overwhelmed at the idea of thinking through your meals so much, that you just reach for the cookies – again.
Hey – not saying you can’t have healthy lactation cookies when you’re one handed and starving, but when quick fixes are the only source of nutrition, there’s a need for change.
That’s why I’ve put together this little guide to the breastfeeding nutrition basics.
In simple words: what you should be eating, and what you can leave out. Ready? Let’s dive in.
The suprising truth
So pregnancy is over, and you can relax a little with your diet now there aren’t so many restrictions.
That’s to say, your baby will get all the nutrition she needs from you – even if you’re malourished.
Oh! Why is nutrition so important then? Well, precisely because that leaves you with no energy.
To put it in other words, baby will get all she needs regardless of what you eat, but you’ll be feeling depleted.
Breast milk not only consumes calories, but also healthy vitamins that go directly to baby. More about that later…
We’ve heard about carbs, protein and fat our entire lives, but how much should we be consuming of each?
You will have seen the respresentation of the food pyramid many a time, which shows grains such as bread and pasta as what we should be eating the most of:
Luckily, times have changed and nutrition experts have had their say, as too many carbohydrates have lead to an increased amount in obesity.
(You can find the new version here.)
The problem with the original up until the change in 2011, is that if starches are converted into sugar by the body, which if we don’t use, turn into fat.
And fat in turn, when it’s not burned, stays put.
Not only that, it doesn’t distinguish between refined and wholegrain, highly processed meat versus oily fish, and so forth. (1)
More specifically, breastfeeding mothers need more calories in a day (roughly around 500) to keep up their milk supply.
But how does one get in the calories without devouring the carbs and high saturated fatty foods?
5 meals a day
If we note down our daily intake of each food element, we can then break them down into 5 daily portions:
So looking at the above, if we divide these intakes roughly into three main meals and a couple of snacks, we’d get this:
I’m sure we’ve all heard of the importance of wholegrain. White bread, pasta and rice are low in nutricious value and high in satrurated fat.
Some example of wholegrain foods can be:
- Brown rice or pasta
- Quinoa (GF)
- Oats (Check for GF)
- Corn (GF
- Buckwhear (GF)
- Potatoes/sweet potatoes
If you prefer a non-grain diet or you have any sort of allergy, you can also that we can get your carbs in from some other starches too:
- Sweet potatoes
For an extensive list of grain-free carbs, check this post out by Srength and Sunshine.
What do we really know about protein? We learned vaguely that it’s good for our muscles way back in school but how?
Protein is actually essential for muscle repair, hair and nail growth and a large amount is automatically passed on to baby.
That’s why, according to Lactation Lab, a breastfeeding mother will need 27g more protein – making her daily average 71g a day. (2)
Bear in mind you’ll need more protein throughout the first 6 months of breastfeeding than a toddler who is integrating solids.
Sources of protein
As you want to be getting a small amount of protein in each serving, it’s good to plan out your meals a little beforehand so as to know you’re including it.
You don’t have to be super strict with this – your body is your best guide after all. Proteins can be fit in during the day with little snacks and go-tos too. Here are some example of protein-rich foods:
- Lean meat and poultry
- Oily fish (also high in omegas)
- Nuts (almonds particularly)
Okay, so now we have some examples to play with. A typical protein-packed day could look something like this:
You’re probably looking at that thinking: boy, that’s a lot of food!
Remember, you need to replenish your protein stores daily as protein, unlike other food sources, cannot be stored in the body. (3)
With that, I’m not saying you have to down a bowl of chickpeas or lentils every day – I try and mix it up and do every other day just not to get super bloated!
When you don’t eat pulses, you can eat yoghurt with breakfast or include cheese with dinner – it’s up to you at the end of the day.
We’ve covered carbs and proteins….now it’s time to look at fats.
I want to clear up a common misconception before we start: not all fats are a bad thing!
I often feel that the term ‘fat’ in today’s society has become generalized and overused – so much so that we miss the fact that certain facts are actually useful for bodily functions.
So, I thought I’d start with delving into different types of fats, right from the start so we know where we’re at:
- Saturated fats
- Unsaturated fats
These are the fats that in general, it’s best to avoid. There are two types of saturated fats: saturated and trans fatty acids.
Saturated fats are the type of fat you find in animal by-products, poultry skin, and are also found in most baked goods.
Experts generally advise that no more than 10% a day. (4)
Though if you choose an animal-free diet, obviously you don’t need to worry about that!
So, trans fats are the other type of ‘bad’ fats, that have become increasingly popular due to the hydrogenation of many food products.
Some examples of foods that contain trans fats to be aware of:
- Cookies/confectioned goods
- Fast food
Confectioned goods are high in saturated fats/Photo by eric montanah
Not all of these will have them, but be sure to check the label before you buy, and consider a healthier option wherever possible.
In fact, you should be avoiding these fats even more than saturated fats as they have a high correlation with cholesterol, heart and liver disease, etc.
What are the good fats then?
I’m glad you asked. Here’s where what I said earlier really comes into play – there ARE some fats that are actually good for you!
Just like the ‘bad’ fats, these are also broken down into two categories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
The two types of unsaturated fats are very similar in the fact that they both lower triglycerides (bad cholesterol?) They can be found in the following:
- Sesame seeds
- Nuts (peanuts, cashews)
- Cooking oils
Sources of healthy fats/Photo by Elena Elisseeva
If you want to make a healthy change to your diet, consume a little of the two and cut out as much as you can of the ‘bad’ fats. (5)
Polyunsaturated fats are the fats that you find in vegetable oils for example olive, sunflower and nut oils.
It’s quite easy to incorporate them into your diet if you haven’t already – a good drizzle of olive oil to condiment any plate, a handful of seeds if you’re on the go.
Polyunsaturated fats also contain Omega fats, essential for brain function and cell growth. (6)
Quick tip: If you put flaxseeds in a recipe, make sure to chew them well as if they are swallowed whole they can irritate your bowels. (Advice from my doctor!)
Nursing mothers really shouldn’t overlook their calcium intake – it’s actually much higher than average at 1000-1300g a day. (7)
Calcium is really important for strong bones and teeth. You may have felt some weakening during pregnancy (your baby consumes a high amount in the womb) and you need to re-establish your intake.
Normally it can be found in dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, though you can find it in certain other food sources. Here’s a list below per cup size:
- Brocoli (180g)
- Spinach (240g)
- Squash (90g)
- Chard (100g)
- Dried figs (300g)
- Sesame seeds roasted (280g)
- Sunflower seeds (50g)
A great source of calcium/Photo by Lisa Fotios
*Information from Ucsfhealth. There are more examples there, though. I’ve highlighted the highest sources of calcium.
Alas! Little do we know about Vitamin D, really. Yet without it, our body is not able to absorb calcium. So it’s kind of important, right?
Since it normally comes from direct sunlight, obviously those with better weather will have a naturally higher consumption. That leaves countries like where I’m from (UK) wondering how to implement it.
The truth is, it’s a little tricky.
Your main sources of Vitamin D are the following:
- Fatty fish (mackerel, salmon)
- Foods fortified with Vitamin D
- Egg yolk
La Leche League has a great article about Vitamin D intake. Most experts agree that even through eating these foods and getting a little sunlight is not enough to be sufficient.
That’s why your pediatrician may recommend that you supplement your baby with Vitamin D capsules. You may have a test done, beforehand to check your baby’s levels and the doctor will decide whether or not it’s needed.
Equally, if you’re naturally low in Vitamin D, you can take a supplement (for nursing mothers), which will not only nourish your child but replace what you’re losing via milk.
La Leche League (and most pediatricians) explains that your breastfed baby will have enough iron stored in his body until his 6 months of age.
This is typically when you start introducing solids anyway, when you can give baby iron-rich foods.
Formula milk is known for having more iron than breastmilk, which leads many breastfeeding mothers questioning whether they should supplement.
Also, very little iron is actually passed through the milk, so you don’t need to replace so much as other vitamins.
This does not take away from the fact though, that iron is just as important for you! Especially if you have a tendency to become anaemic, you want to include iron-rich foods in your diet.
Some great examples, starting with meat, are:
- Lean beef
- Spinach/leafy vegetables
- Eriched cereal/breads
Obviously, you can take supplements, if your doctor recommends them, though be sure to check they’re of the natural kind.
If you continue to take a multi-vitamin whilst breastfeeding, which I highly recommend, you should have a healthy dose in there too.
Okay, so we’ve covered the main food sources that are essential to a well-balanced diet.