It can be hard to juggle the breastfeeding diet that gives your little the right nutrients while trying to fit into your old jeans. When you're feeding your baby breastmilk, they're eating what you're eating, so you should be sure you're consuming the right foods to promote growth and development.
For new moms who want to get it right (and are worried about doing something wrong), Juliana Shalek, MS, RD, CDN says it's all about balance. "Keep in mind that it's okay if your diet is not 'perfect,'" she says. "The goal is to have mom put herself and her body in the best state for successful breastfeeding." If a mom isn't eating well, Shalek said she's actually more likely to stop breastfeeding, so we asked her to help us navigate the right breastfeeding diet.
Meet the Expert
"Individuals who are breastfeeding should be adhering to a generally healthy diet to meet their nutrient needs and make sure they are getting enough energy," advises Shalek. Here are some of the basics she shares with her clients on diet, exercise, and getting back to your body after baby:
- Consume a varied and balanced diet with adequate protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy sources.
- Stay away from processed foods, canned foods, excess sugar, and artificial sweeteners.
- Make sure to hydrate—the water requirements for lactating women are higher than the usual daily requirements.
- Get on a consistent eating schedule to keep up energy levels (try to refuel every three to four hours with healthy snacks between meals).
- Skipping meals to take off baby weight only makes you overeat at the next meal and slows down your metabolism; also, it does not promote optimal energy levels.
- Try to do some kind of physical activity a few days a week (walking counts!).<br/>- Breastfeeding can burn up to 500 calories a day, so if you are very active you should be mindful of consuming adequate calories.
- You may feel hungrier, so include one to two extra high protein snacks a day (string cheese with whole wheat crackers, peanut butter with an apple or banana, and a cup of cottage cheese with berries are all good options).
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine in large volumes to avoid dehydration.
WHAT TO EAT
"You want to aim for nutrient-dense foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and lean proteins and low in calories," advises Shalek. She calls these good "bang for your buck" foods. Here are some nutritious examples:
What to Eat: Meat, fish, chicken, eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt, milk, beans, nuts, nut butter, seeds
Why: "Protein is important for adequate growth and development, tissue repair, immune support, and lean muscle maintenance," says Shalek. "It's used by mom's body for the production of breast milk and helps with the growth and nourishment of the baby."
What to Eat: Milk, yogurt, cheese, kale, collard greens, broccoli, soybeans, calcium-fortified food
Why: "It's important for bone and teeth formation and protection," explains Shalek.
What to Eat: Whole grain bread, brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, beans, lentils, sweet potatoes
Why: "These serve as 'fuel' for mom and baby and are also high in fiber to help with mom's digestive health and to control glucose levels," says Shalek.
What to Eat: Red meat, green leafy vegetables, seafood, beans, fortified cereals
Why: "They're important for the production of red blood cells and to help oxygen distribute to the tissues of the body for both mom and baby," according to Shalek.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
What to Eat: Fish (salmon, tuna, sardines), flaxseeds, chia seeds, canola oil
Why: "These fatty acids serve an anti-inflammatory function, help with brain and cognitive development, and can help with gut function in both mom and baby," explains Shalek.
WHAT TO CONSIDER
"It is definitely recommended to be eating a healthy, balanced diet while breastfeeding; however, there are no universally 'dangerous or harmful' foods for moms to consume while nursing," explains Shalek. With that being said, there are a few things to be wary of.
High Mercury Fish
Similarly to how you avoided high-mercury fish while pregnant because mercury can be toxic, you should try to do the same while breastfeeding. Fish to stay clear of include shark, swordfish, marlin, and king mackerel. Opt for salmon, shrimp, scallops, and tilapia instead.
For all those moms who have been craving a glass of wine, know that alcohol, within reason, can be okay while breastfeeding. "But alcohol goes into your bloodstream so 'pumping and dumping' is actually a myth," explains Shalek. The only way to clear the alcohol from your body is by giving it time—although the number of hours to wait before breastfeeding depends on someone's weight, and alcohol tolerance. "Usually, if you do not feel cognitive effects of alcohol intake like being able to drive safely and perform activities without impairment, breastfeeding is likely fine," says Shalek. She suggests waiting two to three hours before nursing to let the alcohol clear your system. But keep it within reason—Shalek doesn't recommend consuming more than one or two drinks in an evening if you're actively nursing.
The rule of thumb with caffeine is pretty similar to that of alcohol since it also enters the bloodstream and can get passed on to baby through feedings. The CDC recommends limiting caffeine intake to 300 milligrams or less per day, or about two to three cups of coffee, while breastfeeding. However, some babies are more sensitive to caffeine—it can actually make them jittery—so if your child is fussier and not sleeping well while you're nursing, you may want to cut out coffee. To be extra safe, avoid strong espresso shots and opt for coffee diluted with milk.
Shalek says that, in general, moms should be mindful of any significant negative reactions baby may be having post breastfeeding because it can be caused by a particular food in mom's diet. A mother's food intake can change the flavor of the milk (especially foods with garlic or spice), which babies can be sensitive to at times. It won't hurt your child—they just may not nurse as effectively since the taste isn't as pleasant to them.
Jeong G, Park SW, Lee YK, Ko SY, Shin SM. Maternal Food Restrictions During Breastfeeding. Korean J Pediatr. 2017;60(3):70-76. doi: 10.3345/kjp.2017.60.3.70
2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Key Recommendations: Components of Healthy Eating Patterns. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Shifts Needed To Align With Healthy Eating Patterns. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Bardosono S, Prasmusinto D, Hadiati DR, et al. Fluid Intake of Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women in Indonesia: A Cross-Sectional Survey with a Seven-Day Fluid Specific Record. Nutrients. 2016;8(11). doi:10.3390/nu8110651
Weight Loss: The Lowdown on Losing Weight. Cleveland Clinic. March 5, 2019
Kominiarek MA, Rajan P. Nutrition Recommendations in Pregnancy and Lactation. Med Clin North Am. 2016;100(6):1199-1215. doi:10.1016/j.mcna.2016.06.004
Dehydration. Cleveland Clinic. May 9, 2019
Advice About Eating Fish. United States Food and Drug Administration. August 31, 2020
Alcohol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. December 28, 2019
Maternal Diet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. October 8, 2020