Breastfeeding Diet 101: what to Eat While Breastfeeding

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

You’ve probably heard that breastfeeding is super healthy for your baby, but did you know that breastfeeding has benefits for your health as well?

Breastfeeding may help reduce your risk of developing certain medical conditions later in life, including heart disease and diabetes. It may also relieve stress and help you feel more connected to your new baby. All good things.

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Plus, breast milk is chock-full of nourishing nutrients and protective compounds that are essential for your baby’s development. This is why breast milk is known as the “gold standard” for infant nutrition and is often referred to as liquid gold.*

*Add “producing liquid gold” to the running list of amazing things women are capable of doing.

Not surprisingly, it takes a lot of energy to produce this liquid gold and your needs for many nutrients increase to meet these demands.

It’s so, so important to choose nutrient-dense, nourishing foods to support your breast milk production. Plus, eating healthy foods postpartum can help you feel better both mentally and physically — and who doesn’t want that? Sign us up.

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This article explains everything you need to know about eating a healthy diet while breastfeeding.

Get to know the breast milk basics

You may be wondering why it’s so important that you follow a heathy, nutrient- dense diet while breastfeeding.

In addition to promoting your overall health, a healthy diet is essential for ensuring that your baby is getting all the nutrients they need to thrive.

With the exception of vitamin D, breast milk contains everything your baby needs for proper development during the first 6 months.

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But if your overall diet does not provide sufficient nutrients, it can affect both the quality of your breast milk and your own health.

Research shows that breast milk is made up of 87 percent water, 3.8 percent fat, 1.0 percent protein, and 7 percent carbohydrate and provides 60 to 75 kcal/ 100ml.

Unlike baby formula, the calorie content and composition of breast milk varies. Breast milk changes during each feeding and throughout your lactation period, in order to meet the needs of your baby.

At the beginning of a feeding, the milk is more watery and usually quenches the baby’s thirst. The milk that comes later (hindmilk) is thicker, higher in fat and more nutritious.

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In fact according to an older 2005 study, this milk may contain 2 to 3 times as much fat as milk from the beginning of a feeding, and 7 to 11 more calories per ounce. Therefore, to get to the most nutritious milk, it’s important that your baby empties one breast before switching to the other.

Breast milk contains everything a baby needs for the first 6 months of life. Additionally, the fat and calorie content of breast milk changes both during a feeding and over time to accommodate your baby’s needs.

Shoot for nutrient-dense breastfeeding foods

There’s a reason why your hunger levels may be at an all-time high when breastfeeding your new baby. Creating breast milk is demanding on the body and requires extra overall calories, as well as higher levels of specific nutrients.

In fact, it’s estimated that your energy needs during breastfeeding increase by about 500 calories per day. The need for specific nutrients, including protein, vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, B12, selenium, and zinc go up as well.

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This is why eating a variety of nutrient-dense, whole foods is so important for your health and your baby’s health. Choosing foods rich in the above nutrients can help ensure that you get all the macro- and micronutrients you and your little one need.

Here are some nutritious and delicious food choices to prioritize when breastfeeding:

  • Fish and seafood: salmon, seaweed, shellfish, sardines
  • Meat and poultry: chicken, beef, lamb, pork, organ meats (such as liver)
  • Fruits and vegetables: berries, tomatoes, bell peppers, cabbage, kale, garlic, broccoli
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds
  • Healthy fats: avocados, olive oil, coconut, eggs, full-fat yogurt
  • Fiber-rich starches: potatoes, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, oats, quinoa, buckwheat
  • Other foods: tofu, dark chocolate, kimchi, sauerkraut

We’re loving this list so far, but breastfeeding parents are not limited to these foods. Check out this list for more ideas on nutrient-dense ingredients.

And while enjoying your fave foods on occasion is perfectly healthy, it’s best to reduce your intake of processed foods like fast food and sugary breakfast cereals as much as possible. Instead, choose more nutritious options.

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For example, if you’re used to starting your day with a big bowl of brightly colored breakfast cereal, try swapping it with a bowl of oats topped with berries, unsweetened coconut, and a dollop of nut butter for a filling and healthy fuel source.

To meet your increased calorie and nutrient demands while breastfeeding, fuel your body with whole, nutrient-dense foods.

Adjust your breastfeeding diet for both nutrient groups

Okay, so now that you have the basics down of why eating nutrient-dense foods is essential when breastfeeding, let’s dive a little deeper into why it’s important to pay special attention to specific vitamins and minerals, too.

The nutrients in breast milk can be categorized into two groups, depending on the extent to which they are secreted into your milk.

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If you’re depleted of any group 1 nutrients, they won’t secrete into your breast milk as readily. So, supplementing with these nutrients can give a little boost to their concentration in breast milk and enhance the health of your baby as a result. (Got questions on vitamin supplements during pregnancy? Check in with your doctor and see also the section below.)

On the other hand, the concentration of group 2 nutrients in breast milk does not depend on how much mom takes in, so supplementing won’t increase your breast milk nutrient concentration. Even so, these can still improve maternal health by replenishing nutrient stores.

If all of that sounds a little confusing, no worries. Here’s the bottom line: getting enough group 1 nutrients is important for both you and your baby, while getting enough group 2 nutrients is mostly just important for you.

Group 1 nutrients

Here are the group 1 nutrients and how to find them in some common food sources:

  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamin): fish, pork, seeds, nuts, beans
  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): cheese, almonds, nuts, red meat, oily fish, eggs
  • Vitamin B6: chickpeas, nuts, fish, poultry, potatoes, bananas, dried fruit
  • Vitamin B12: shellfish, liver, yogurt, oily fish, nutritional yeast, eggs, crab, shrimp
  • Choline: eggs, beef liver, chicken liver, fish, peanuts
  • Vitamin A: sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy greens, organ meats, eggs
  • Vitamin D: cod liver oil, oily fish, some mushrooms, fortified foods
  • Selenium: Brazil nuts, seafood, turkey, whole wheat, seeds
  • Iodine: dried seaweed, cod, milk, iodized salt
Group 2 nutrients
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Here are the group 2 nutrients and some common food sources:

  • Folate: beans, lentils, leafy greens, asparagus, avocados
  • Calcium: milk, yogurt, cheese, leafy greens, legumes
  • Iron: red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, beans, green vegetables, dried fruit
  • Copper: shellfish, whole grains, nuts, beans, organ meats, potatoes
  • Zinc: oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, dairy

As we touched on earlier, the concentration of group 2 nutrients in breast milk are relatively unaffected by your dietary intake or body stores.

So, if your intake is low, your body will take these nutrients from your own bone and tissue stores in order to secrete them into your breast milk.

Your baby will always get the right amount (hooray!), but your body stores will become depleted if you don’t get adequate amounts from your diet. To avoid becoming deficient, these nutrients must come from your diet or supplements.

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It’s essential for you and your baby’s health to get enough of both group 1 and group 2 nutrients. While the concentration of group 1 nutrients in breast milk is impacted by maternal levels, the concentration of group 2 nutrients is not.

Consider taking supplements

Although a healthy diet is the most important factor when it comes to nutrition during breastfeeding, there’s no question that taking certain supplements can help replenish your stores of certain vitamins and minerals.

There are a number of reasons why new moms may be low in certain nutrients, including not eating the right foods and the increased energy demands of breast milk production, along with looking after your baby.

Taking supplements can help boost your intake of important nutrients. But it’s important to be weary when choosing supplements, since many contain herbs and other additives that aren’t safe for breastfeeding moms.

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We’ve rounded up a list of important supplements for breastfeeding moms and promoting postpartum recovery in general. Always be sure to purchase products from reputable brands that undergo testing by third-party organizations, like NSF or USP.

Multivitamins

A multivitamin can be a great choice for increasing your intake of important vitamins and minerals.

It’s common for women to be deficient in vitamins and minerals after delivery and research shows that deficiencies don’t discriminate, affecting moms in both high- and low-income settings.

For this reason, it may be a good idea to pop a daily multivitamin, especially if you don’t think you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals through your diet alone. (With so much to think about as a new parent, who is?)

Vitamin B-12
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Vitamin B-12 is a super important water-soluble vitamin that is essential for your baby’s health, as well as your own health, during breastfeeding.

Plus, many women — especially those following mostly plant-based diets, those who’ve had gastric bypass surgery, and women who are on certain medications (such as acid reflux drugs) — are already at an increased risk of having low B-12 levels.

If you fit into one of these categories, or if you feel that you don’t eat enough B-12 rich foods like fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and fortified foods, then taking a B-complex or B-12 supplement is a good idea.

Keep in mind that a most high-quality multivitamin and prenatal vitamins contain enough B-12 to cover your needs.

Omega-3 (DHA)
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Omega-3 fats are all the rage nowadays, and for good reason. These fats, naturally found in fatty fish and algae, play essential roles in both maternal and fetal health.

For example, the omega-3 fat DHA is critical for the development of your baby’s nervous system, skin, and eyes. Plus, concentration of this important fat in breast milk largely depends on your intake levels.

What’s more, research shows that babies who are fed breast milk with high levels of DHA have better vision and neurodevelopment outcomes.

Because breast milk concentrations of omega-3s reflect your intake of these important fats, it’s essential that you get enough. We recommend that nursing mothers take in 250 to 375 mg daily of DHA plus EPA, another important omega-3 fat.

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Although eating 8 to 12 ounces of fish, especially fatty fish like salmon and sardines, can help you reach the recommended intake levels, taking a fish oil or krill oil supplement is a convenient way to cover your daily needs.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is only found in a few foods, like fatty fish, fish liver oils, and fortified products. Your body can also produce it from sunlight exposure, though it depends on many factors, like skin color and where you live.

Research shows that it plays many important roles in your body and is essential for immune function and bone health.

Vitamin D is usually only present in low amounts in breast milk, especially when sun exposure is limited.

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Therefore, supplementing with 400 IU of vitamin D per day is recommended for breast-fed babies and babies consuming less than 1 liter of formula per day, starting during the first few days of life and continuing until they are 12 months of age, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

According to research, supplementing with 6,400 IU daily can help supply your baby with adequate amounts of vitamin D through breast milk alone. Interestingly, this amount is much higher than the current recommended vitamin D intake of 600 IU for breastfeeding moms.

Vitamin D deficiency is extremely common amongst breastfeeding women. And deficiency can lead to negative health outcomes, including an increased risk of postpartum depression. That’s why supplementing with this vitamin is recommended.

Ask your healthcare provider for specific dosing recommendations based on your current vitamin D levels.

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Breastfeeding moms may benefit from taking multivitamins, vitamin B-12, omega-3s, and vitamin D supplements.

Drink plenty of water

In addition to being hungrier than usual while breastfeeding, you may feel thirstier as well.

When your baby latches onto your breast, your oxytocin levels increase. This causes your milk to start flowing. This also stimulates thirst and helps ensure that you stay properly hydrated while feeding your baby.

It’s important to note that your hydration needs will vary depending on factors like activity levels and dietary intake. There’s no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to how much fluid you need during breastfeeding.

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As a rule of thumb, you should always drink when you are thirsty and until you have quenched your thirst.

But if you feel very tired, faint, or as if your milk production is decreasing, you may need to drink more water. The best way to tell if you are drinking enough water is the color and smell of your urine.

If it is dark yellow and has a strong smell, that’s a sign that you’re dehydrated and need to drink more water.

While breastfeeding, you release oxytocin, which stimulates thirst. This natural biological process ensures that you drink enough water to meet your increased fluid needs.

Foods and drinks to avoid while breastfeeding

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Although you may have heard otherwise, it’s safe to eat just about any food while breastfeeding, unless you have an allergy to a specific food.

And, although some flavors from food, spices or beverages may change the taste of your breast milk, research shows it’s unlikely that this will impact your baby’s feeding time or make them fussy.

Another common misconception is that “gassy” foods like cauliflower and cabbage will cause gassiness in your baby, too. Although these foods may make you gassy, the gas-promoting compounds do not transfer to breast milk, per this 2017 research.

In summary, most foods and drinks are safe during breastfeeding, but there are a few that should be limited or avoided. If you think something may be impacting your baby negatively, ask your healthcare provider for advice.

Caffeine
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About 1 percent of the caffeine you consume is transferred to breast milk, and research says it takes babies much longer to metabolize caffeine. Drinking caffeinated beverages like coffee have not been shown to cause harm, but they may affect the baby’s sleep.

Therefore, it’s recommended that breastfeeding women limit their coffee intake to about 2 to 3 cups per day. It’s a bummer, we know, but at least some coffee is allowed, right?

Alcohol

Alcohol can also make its way into breast milk. The concentration resembles the amount found in the mother’s blood. However, babies metabolize alcohol at only half the rate of adults.

Nursing after drinking just 1 to 2 drinks can decrease your baby’s milk intake by up to 23 percent and cause agitation and poor sleep.

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Because alcohol intake too close to breastfeeding can negatively impact your baby’s healthy, the AAP says alcohol intake should be limited during breastfeeding.

The AAP suggests no more than 0.5 grams of alcohol per kilogram of body weight, which for a 60-kilogram (132-pound) mother, equals 2 ounces of liquor, 8 ounces of wine, or 2 beers.

Although it’s perfectly find to enjoy an alcoholic beverage as a breastfeeding mom, it’s best to wait at least 2 hours after drinking to breastfeed your baby.

Cow’s milk

Although uncommon. Some babies may be allergic to cow’s milk. And if your baby has a cow’s milk allergy, it’s important that you exclude all dairy products from your diet.

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Up to 1 percent of breastfed infants are allergic to cow’s milk protein from their mother’s diet, and may develop rashes, eczema, diarrhea, bloody stools, vomiting or baby colic.

Your healthcare provider can give you advice on how long to exclude dairy from your diet for, and when it’s safe to reintroduce dairy.

It’s recommended that breastfeeding women limit their intake of caffeine and alcohol. A small percentage of babies may be allergic to cow’s milk protein in their mother’s diet.

Breastfeeding and weight loss

You might be tempted to lose weight quickly after delivery, but weight loss takes time and it’s important to be kind to your body during this transition.

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With the many hormonal changes that take place during breastfeeding and the calorie demands of making breast milk, you may have a bigger appetite during breastfeeding.

Restricting calories too much, especially during the first few months of breastfeeding, may decrease your milk supply and much-needed energy levels.

Fortunately, breastfeeding alone has been shown to promote weight loss, especially when continued for 6 months or longer. (That said, losing weight during breastfeeding doesn’t happen for everyone!)

Losing approximately 1.1 pounds (0.5 kilograms) per week through a combination of a healthy diet and exercise should not affect your milk supply or milk composition, assuming that you are not undernourished to begin with.

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All breastfeeding women, no matter their weight, should consume adequate calories. But if you’re underweight, it’s likely that you’ll be more sensitive to calorie restriction.

For this reason, it’s essential that women with less body weight consume more calories to avoid a reduction in milk supply.

All in all, remember that losing weight after delivery is a marathon, not a sprint. It took months to put on the weight for a healthy pregnancy for both you and your baby, and it may take you months to lose it — and that’s okay.

The most important thing to remember when trying to lose pregnancy weight is that restrictive diets are not good for overall health and don’t work for long- term weight loss.

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Following a nutritious diet, adding exercise into your daily routine, and getting enough sleep are the best ways to promote healthy weight loss.

Breastfeeding increases your energy demands and appetite, so weight loss may be slow. It’s important to eat enough calories to ensure that you stay healthy while breastfeeding.

Takeaway

Breastfeeding is hard work! Your body requires more calories and nutrients to keep you and your baby nourished and healthy.

If you’re not eating enough calories or nutrient-rich foods, this can negatively affect the quality of your breast milk. It can also be detrimental for your own health.

It’s more important than ever to eat a variety of healthy, nutritious foods and limit processed foods. Avoid excess caffeine and alcohol consumption, and stick to the recommended intakes to keep your baby healthy.

If you need to, be sure to add supplements into your routine, like vitamin D and omega-3s. And finally, be patient with your body. Take it one day at a time and remind yourself daily how awesome you are.


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