Healthy Eating during Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is a very important time, both for mother and her baby. Breastfeeding provides the baby with the optimal macro and micronutrients that are essential for healthy growth and development of the baby. It is no secret that no formula milk, no matter how well made, can replace mother’s milk. The science and technology are close, but not quite there yet, and to be honest, I am not sure they will ever be there, because mother’s milk can adapt at to baby’s individual needs, but you can adapt formula only to one particular standard.

Good nutrition for nursing mothers is important not only in order to provide baby with the most nutritious milk, but also:

1. To help the mother recover from pregnancy and childbirth, both of which are very stressful for the body.

2. It is also important to get back to a healthy weight if the gain was too high or if the weight does not go back to normal as expected.

3. To ensure that the mother is not deficient in any vitamins and minerals and is on top of her health.

The last point is particulaly important, because to produce the nutritious milk for the baby the body will pull vitamins and minerals from the mother’s body when the dietary intake is not sufficient. And if the dietary intake is not sufficient, then the mother will suffer as a result. In the worst case scenario, your baby may not get enough of the nutrients, too. So to prevent any of this from happening, the mother should pay great attention to her diet and undertake the required measures to achieve the best nutrition for her and the baby.

I hope the following information will help you, if you struggle with your diet and don’t know where to start. But please remember that if you have any concerns, it is worth to speak with a doctor and/or a dietitian to help you start on the right path.

1. Eat regularly.

That means eating 3 regular meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner, and if you need, 2-3 small snacks in between. The thoughts on snacking are different among nutritionists, but in general, if you are hungry between the meals you can have a snack. But they should be within your calorie goal. If the snacks lead you to overconsumption of calories, then you should either reduce snacking or reduce the amount of food eaten during the meals.

An average active woman requires 1600-2000 calories a day. You can use any of the online calculators to find out how many calories exactly you need.

2. Have a starchy carbohydrate at each main meal.

Remember, that it’s not protein that is the centre of the diet. While protein is unarguably important, the meals should be based around the complex carbohydrates, because they provide the body with glucose – the main energy source for each and every cell in the body. Wholegrain brown rice, whole wheat pasta and breads, pseudo grains like quinoa or buckwheat are great sources of complex starchy carbohydrates, as well as fibre and vitamins and minerals, and should compose roughly 1/3 of each main meal.

Why do we emphasis whole grains instead of the usual white rice, pasta and breads? One reason is because due to their complex structure they provide a slower release of energy. Simple carbohydrates consist of single glucose molecules that get into bloodstream almost immediately, spiking the blood sugar. Insulin production is not that instant, and by the time the sugar levels dip, insulin levels are still quite high, which leads to sudden hunger pangs. Complex carbohydrates consist of multiple sugar molecules that take time to break down into simple sugars first, before being released into bloodstream as glucose. Another reason, again, is fibre, which is vital for healthy digestion. It also helps keep your blood sugar and cholesterol in check. The outer shell of the grain, bran, is also loaded with vitamins and minerals, and this is another reason to choose whole grains.

3. Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast!

Regular meals keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day, but they are also important for your metabolism. Breakfast might as well be the most important meal of the day because it kickstarts metabolism after the night of inactivity. Some studies suggest that eating breakfast may lead to better weight loss or weight maintenance, as well as better nutrition. If you skip a meal and become very hungry, you are also at risk of overeating or making bad food choices, so regular meals including daily breakfast really are important for healthy eating habits.

4. Eat a variety of fruit and vegetables.

There’s a reason behind the ‘5 a day’, or better yet ‘7 a day’. Fruits and vegetables are lower in calories but, nonetheless, packed with nutritious compounds from vitamins and minerals to antioxidants. Vitamins play a huge role in healthy metabolism and immune function and minerals are also needed for strong bones, teeth, joints and the entire body. Antioxidants are also mighty helpers that keep your body pretected against harmful substances, like toxins, and free radicals that damage cells and lead to ageing and disease.

5. Eat more fish or other Omega-3 sources.

Fish is healthier than red meat, which ideally should be limited to just a couple of portions a week but overconsumed by many at the present. The average fish intake, hoewever, is lower than recommended. Fish contains Omega-3 fatty acids that are vital for your baby’s brain development. It is also important for your joint and heart health. It is advised to eat 2 portions of oily fish per week. These include salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and other fish. Tuna, king mackerel, marlin, swordfish and other large fish, however, should be limited or avoided at all due to mercury contamination, which can be harmful both for you and your baby.

If you choose to not eat meat and fish, then other sources of Omega-3 include nuts and seeds, especially flax or linseed, chia and hemp, and quality oils, such as olive oil. There are also Omega 3 supplements available, either in the form of fish oil or flaxseed oil. Speak with your doctor or dietitian if you wish to take a supplement.

6. Limit saturated fats.

There is an ongoing discussion whether the saturated fats are as bad as they were thought to be, but cardiologists are still convinced that it should be limited. The reduction of saturated fatty acids in the diet is consistently associated with a reduction of risks of obesity and heart disease, while large intake of saturated fatty acids is consistently associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. So it does make sense to limit saturated fat, no matter what you might hear. The current recommended intake ranges between 15 and 30 g a day for an average diet of 2000 kcal.

The problem with saturated fat is that it may raise your ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol, which is low density and can easily break into pieces. So if the arteries are clogged with this cholesterol, there is a risk that a piece will break off and be carried through the blood vessels to the heart, resulting in a heart attack. The ‘good’ HDL cholesterol is high density, it lines the arteries smoothly and protects them, making them less susceptible to damage. And this is why the types of dietary fat matter: saturated fat raises the LDL-cholesterol, while polyunsaturated fat (like sunflower oil) lowers both LDL and HDL, and unsaturated fat (think olive oil) lowers LDL and increases HDL – and that is, ultimately, what we want.

7. Reduce salt intake.

The truth is ugly: our modern diets are laden with salt. It is everywhere – added to every packaged food, then added to dishes at home while cooking, and some people (I personally know a few) add even more salt to their plate.

Sodium is the equivalent of salt that is naturally present in foods, and it is vital for the human body. Its main role is the maintenance of water balance. But there is little to no benefit from adding salt to your foods, aside from the taste enhancement. High sodium/salt intake leads to water retention and swelling as a result, and also raises your risks of getting cardiovascular disease. Aside from your own diet, salt should also never be added to baby food. The current recommended salt intake is 5 g/ or 1 tsp a day or less (WHO) and the equivalent Sodium intake is 2 g a day (WHO) or less. If you drink bottled water, bear in mind, that there is Sodium in it, although the amounts are small they still count towards the daily goal.

8. Drink plenty of fluids.

Everybody’s requirements are different, but in general 1.5 to 2 litres of water a day is sufficient. That amounts roughly to 6-8 glasses a day. Tea, coffee, juices and soups do count, but you’d want to get the most of your fluids from water because it is the best, calorie-free source of hydration. If you feel that you need more water, add another glass or two. Fluid requirements may be higher during lactation, and it can actually help with milk supply, so try drinking water shortly before or whilst feeding your baby.

Common Misconceptions

1. Avoiding Nuts when breastfeeding, especially Peanuts.

It used to be advised to avoid peanuts and other ground nuts while breastfeeding in order to prevent peanut/nut allergy, but new research shows no link between peanuts/nuts in the mother’s diet and the child’s future allergy. There is, however, a link between peanut consumption during pregnancy and higher risk of peanut allergy in a child. This very small study on mice (poor mice, I know…) suggests that small amounts of peanut protein in mother’s milk may even prevent future allergic reactions as it leads to a partial oral tolerance. This review of human studies also suggests that while there is a link between peanuts in maternal diet during pregnancy and the child’s future allergy, there is no link between ingestion of peanuts during breastfeeding and child’s allergy. Bottom line: peanuts are likely safe to eat while breastfeeding and currently there is no recommendation to avoid them. But be sure to consult with your child’s paediatrician if you have any concerns or suspect a reaction.

2. Avoiding other allergens, namely, Wheat, Dairy, Shellfish, Corn and Citrus fruit.

Just like with peanuts, there is no need to avoid these common allergens, because their concentration in the breast milk is low and very little passes to the infant with the milk. IF, however, your baby does react to something, it is wise to first cut out the common allergens, one at a time. It is better to speak with your baby’s doctor in any such case. And it is also important to remember that it may take up to 10 to 14 days for your baby’s symptoms to improve.

3. No Caffeine

Caffeine is a common stimulant, and when consumed in high amounts it can make your baby cranky and sleepless. But it does not mean that you should avoid it completely. Drinking up to 200 mg caffeine a day, which roughly equals 1 cup of filtered coffee, 2 espressos or 2-3 cups of caffeinated tea, is unlikely to pose any problems for your baby. You have to keep in mind that some pain medication, chocolate and other products may also contain caffeine, so monitor your coffee intake in the cases of consuming other foods/medications containing caffeine. If you suspect that caffeine might be affecting your baby, lower the amount of beverages consumed or try quitting it altogether.

4. No Alcohol

Alcohol should be avoided in large quantities, that is true. However, if your baby is not a newborn and doesn’t nurse on an hourly basis, small amounts of alcohol can be consumed safely. Consuming alcohol occasionally and no more than 1 drink doesn’t appear to have any ill effect on the infant.

‘Reasonable alcohol intake should not be discouraged at all. As is the case with most drugs, very little alcohol comes out in the milk. The mother can take some alcohol and continue breastfeeding as she normally does. Prohibiting alcohol is another way we make life unnecessarily restrictive for nursing mothers’, says Dr. Jack Newman, member of the LLLI Health Advisory Council.

Remember, though, that alcohol may temporarily reduce the milk supply.

More information on alcohol and breastfeeding can be found here.

5. Avoiding other foods to prevent allergies, colics, etc.

According to La Leche League International (LLLI), breastfeeding mothers should not exclude any foods from their diets without a reason to do so. It is vital for nursing mothers to eat a variety of fresh foods in order to obtain the most nutrients for her and the baby. So in general, no foods are on the ‘no’ list. You can eat fruit, veg, berries, spices – whatever appeals your tummy.

But there can be exceptions if the baby is sensitive to a particular food or if there is a history of allergies on either side of the family. If you know that you or your partner have a peanut or dairy or any other allergy, it makes sense to avoid it. Here is another good article on allergies from LLLI. And in case of a colicky baby, it might also help if the common allergens are eliminated from maternal diet, as this study suggests. But that should only be done if your child suffers from colics. There is no need to unnecessarily restrict your diet when there are no issues.

6. Losing weight and exercising while breastfeeding.

Many mothers think that losing weight is not a good idea while you breastfeed because it may reduce the milk supply or make your milk less nutritious. Strict diets that are unvaried and low in energy may actually reduce milk supply, especially in initially underweight women, however, as this review in the Journal of Nutrition shows, moderate energy restriction does not affect milk supply. It also suggests that physical activity has no effect on milk supply or composition. So it is safe to exercise and lose weight during breastfeeding, given that you eat a healthy diet and do not attempt dramatic weight loss.

7. You have to drink milk to produce milk.

This one has been actually addressed in the LLLI section of myths about breastfeeding, too. Adequate nutrition and fluid intake are important for lactation, but milk has no effect on the milk supply. Moreover, as cleverly noted on the LLLI website, no other mammals drink milk of any other species and still lactate successfully.


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