Diet during breastfeeding

By Sanja Nel – Dietitian, SACLC (SA certified lactation consultant)

Breastfeeding is truly the time of “eating for two” – your body is feeding a whole other person! A healthy diet is very important while you are breastfeeding: it will make sure that you remain strong and healthy while nourishing your little one. If your diet is deficient in important nutrients, you are more likely to suffer from tiredness and even illness.

Diet and milk quality

This is the question on every breastfeeding mother’s lips: what should I eat to make the best quality milk? The answer, ironically, is that it doesn’t matter that much. Your body will always make sure that your milk contains enough nutrients, even if it means depleting all your own body stores so that you develop a deficiency yourself. So unless you already have a nutrient deficiency and you are not eating well at the same time, your milk will always contain enough nutrients.

The most significant effect that your diet has on your milk is in the composition of the fats and, to a lesser extent, the proteins. For example, if you eat a lot of saturated fat, your milk fat will contain a higher percentage of saturated fat; similarly, if you take an omega-3 supplement, your milk will contain a larger percentage omega-3’s – but the total amount of fat will be similar.

Interestingly, the flavours of the foods you eat also pass into your breast milk. This is a good thing: it teaches your baby the flavours of your family and culture’s foods. Studies have also shown that breastfed babies accept a variety of different foods more easily, because they’re used to milk that tastes a bit different from day to day. So if you want your baby to eat his veggies someday, make sure you’re eating yours while you breastfeed!

The basics of a balanced diet

You don’t need to eat anything strange or special while breastfeeding. In fact, if you managed to sustain a healthy pregnancy, you can probably just continue eating what you were eating then. One bonus is that you no longer need to avoid raw animal foods, so you can have that sushi you’ve been craving.

In short, a balanced diet contains a variety of foods that are as minimally processed as possible. You want to include food from all the major food groups every day:

  • Starches: choose mostly whole grains (whole-wheat breads and pasta, brown rice, oats, quinoa etc.) and starchy veggies (baby potatoes, sweet potato and mielies). Refined, white starches and sugars can cause low blood sugar, which can lead to tiredness and mood swings.
  • Proteins: you can get your daily protein from animal foods (meat, milk, eggs, poultry and fish) or plant sources (legumes, nuts). You need more protein than a non-lactating woman, so try to include a protein-rich food at each meal.
  • Fruits and veggies: aim for five a day. These are probably the best foods to binge on, now or at any other time.
  • Fats: be sure to include healthy fats at every meal; you need the extra energy!

You may notice that your appetite increases dramatically while you are breastfeeding. It makes sense, since you’re burning a lot of calories to make breast milk. As long as you stick to healthy, unprocessed foods, you can eat until you’re no longer hungry.

Fluid intake

Breastfeeding women are often advised to “drink a lot of water” to increase milk production. Now, while it is true that being dehydrated can decrease your milk production, you won’t see any further increase in milk production if you’re already well hydrated. The best guideline is to drink until you’re no longer thirsty. You will find you get thirsty a lot more while you are breastfeeding, so most women find they need to drink about 2-3 litres a day.

Foods to avoid while breastfeeding

On the internet you will find lists of hundreds of foods that you must avoid while breastfeeding. The irony is that the foods one culture says you should avoid are often recommended by another culture! The long and short of it is that you don’t need to avoid anything unless you are certain that your baby has a reaction to it every time you eat it.

Your milk is made from your blood, not from your stomach contents – so only things that end up in your blood can get into your milk. This means that gas-forming foods won’t give your baby gas, because the gas bubbles don’t travel through your blood (sadly, your baby will have gas regardless – you may just notice the smell more if you’ve had some cabbage or eggs, because those smelly sulphur compounds do get into your milk).

Caffeine and alcohol are two food components that do end up in your milk. Fortunately, most babies can tolerate caffeine quite well once they’re a few weeks old.

Losing the baby weight

A lot of women are very concerned with getting back to their pre-pregnancy weight as soon as possible. Be patient! It took you nine months to pick up all that weight, it will probably take you at least as long to lose it again. In fact, you don’t want to lose weight too quickly: a lot of toxins are stored in fat tissue, and if you burn a lot of fat very quickly, those toxins get released all at once and end up in your milk.

The best way to lose weight while breastfeeding is to eat a diet of healthy, minimally processed foods, concentrating on fruits and vegetables. Avoid anything not found in nature (such as soft drinks, sweets, polony…) and you’ll be safe. And although it’s popular right now, do not go on a low-carb diet; it can have a detrimental effect on your milk production.

You can also get some moderate exercise. As long as you don’t suddenly do a lot more exercise that your body is used to, it won’t have any negative effect on your milk production.

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