Updated: Feb 8
Breast milk is pretty amazing stuff. In fact, there are numerous cognitive, immune, digestive, and metabolic benefits of nursing, both for you and your baby. For the mother, breastfeeding is associated with lower postpartum cholesterol and triglyceride levels, decreased postpartum blood loss, lower risk of maternal anemia, and prolonged lactational amenorrhea (delays the start of your menstrual cycle after birth), which comes with its own set of benefits (1,2) In the long-term, women who breastfeed have a reduced risk of postmenopausal hypertension, diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidemia, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and stroke (3,4,5,6). Additionally, breastfeeding was associated with a 22% reduction in the risk of breast cancer and a 30% reduction in the risk of ovarian cancer (7).
For the baby, breastmilk confers many additional benefits that can impact the child throughout their entire life. Specifically, breastfed infants are reported to have a diverse and healthy gut microbiome, fewer colds, diarrhea, and ear infections, and reduced incidence of obesity and other chronic diseases later in life (7).
With so much to be gained from breastfeeding, more and more moms today are choosing this option for their babies. But it is important to understand the challenges that can come with breastfeeding, as well as the nutritional demands that breastfeeding places on your body.
There is a lot to be said about the challenges, emotional stress, and other realities of breastfeeding, but in this post, we’ll focus specifically on the nutritional demands and considerations for mothers who choose to breastfeed.
Diet and breast milk connection
A mother’s breast milk provides all of the nutrients that her baby needs to thrive. Research shows that even when women are not eating optimal diets, they still produce nutritious milk full of immune-boosting antibodies and important nutrients for their baby. In fact, certain important nutrients are virtually unaffected by maternal nutrition (likely designed to help babies survive even if their mothers were undernourished) including calories, protein, folate, and most trace minerals (i.e. calcium, iron, zinc, etc).
Other nutrients, however, can pass through to breastmilk and are directly affected by the mother’s diet, including nutrients important for brain health. This is why it’s important for breastfeeding mothers to try and eat as nutrient-dense and optimally as possible.
Calorie needs to produce breast milk
Caloric needs for postpartum women vary depending on a number of factors including weight gained during pregnancy, maternal energy stores, activity level, and genetics.
Generally, a mother’s body uses about 300-500 calories per day to produce breast milk, so increasing caloric intake with nutrient-dense foods to match this is advised.
Food and nutrients to increase or emphasize when breastfeeding
When breastfeeding, you’re going to be thirsty. So thirsty. Breast milk is more than 80% water, which means your body is going to need more of it. There is no perfect recommendation here in terms of exact numbers, but the best recommendation is to drink water consistently throughout the day and actively try to increase the amount you drank prior to breastfeeding.
Foods high in B-vitamins and choline
B vitamins (with the exception of folate) directly impact the nutrient quality of breast milk, so it is important to prioritize b-vitamin-rich foods. Some great options include green leafy vegetables, eggs, organ and grass-fed meats (particularly for vitamin B12), eggs, and legumes.
Foods high in fatty acids and DHA
The quality of fat that you eat directly impacts the quality of fat found in your breast milk. Look for sources that are high in DHA, including seafood (i.e. salmon, tuna, trout, and cod), as well as other non-fish sources of omega-3 fatty acids like flax seed, chia seed, hemp seeds, and walnuts.
Vegetables and fruit
We have been told to eat our fruits and vegetables our entire lives, but no time in a woman’s life is more important to take this advice than while breastfeeding.
Fruits and vegetables are a rich source of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that can all enhance the quality of your breast milk and subsequently the nourishment of your baby. Many, including carrots, spinach, sweet potato, and tomatoes, are specifically great sources of vitamin A, which passes through to a mother’s milk.
A note on food allergies
While it is important to eat a diverse and varied diet while breastfeeding, there are a few foods that you might want to consider avoiding while breastfeeding.
You’ll want to keep an eye on how your baby is responding to your breast milk and assess if he or she might be allergic to something you are eating that is passing through to the milk. The most common allergens to watch for are milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, and fish.
Jessica Knurick is a researcher, speaker, and mom to an energetic little boy named Lucas. She is a registered dietitian with a PhD in physical activity, nutrition, and wellness, and has spent the last decade working on the wellness side of healthcare in the research lab, in clinical care, and with innovative medical technology startups aimed at improving the health of individuals on a person-centered, ongoing basis. She is the co-founder of Kula, a virtual support platform with all inclusive access to book 1:1 sessions with a network of wellness experts for moms.