You took care of yourself while pregnant — eating healthy foods and taking your prenatal vitamins. But after giving birth, it’s just as important to maintain those good habits.
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Research shows that breastfeeding can help reduce your risk of developing certain medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes later in life. If you choose to breastfeed, there are certain foods you can eat that will benefit you and your baby — helping with maintaining energy and increasing milk supply.
Certified nurse midwife Sue Hudson, CNM, shares the foods you should be eating while breastfeeding.
Nutrition and breast milk
Breastfeeding provides essential nutrients to your baby. In fact, your breast milk changes over time to include the nutrients that your baby needs, says Hudson.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” she says. “An individual’s breast milk is designed for the gestational age of whatever that infant is.”
Making sure you’re eating a well-balanced diet is key. It’s important to note that if you’re breastfeeding, you need to consume extra calories as well. Most diets include between 1,600 to 2,000 calories, but those who are breastfeeding should aim to eat an extra 350 to 500 calories a day.
“That’s going to provide what the baby would need and also continue to provide for your nutritional needs,” says Hudson.
Also, it’s vital to make sure you stay hydrated too.
“Remember your baby is drinking you dry,” says Hudson. “It’s easy to become constipated if you’re breastfeeding — especially if you have a newborn.”
The best foods to eat while breastfeeding
You’re probably already stressing out about having a newborn at home, so don’t let what you’re eating add to your stress, says Hudson.
“As long as a person is eating a very diverse diet, they’re going to do just fine,” she says. Here are some great options she recommends adding to your diet:
Ingredients like oatmeal, brown rice and whole-grain pasta are important to keep in rotation because they are naturally high in fiber, minerals and vitamins, as well as carbohydrates, protein and healthy unsaturated fats.
Eating whole grains can help keep you full longer, help your digestive system function well and help avoid those hangry sort of days.
“Whole grains will keep your blood sugar levels in more of a steady state,” says Hudson.
Salmon and sardines
Fish like salmon and sardines are a great source of protein, as well as vitamins and omega-3s, which can decrease inflammation. Salmon also contains natural vitamin D.
“Consuming those foods will help with the baby’s nervous system development,” says Hudson.
For people who are not vegetarians, eating beef can provide you with essential B vitamins and most importantly, zinc. Zinc will help you maintain your energy.
Instead of grain-fed beef, look for grass-fed beef, which has less fat and calories, and has more omega-3s. And it doesn’t contain any added hormones or antibiotics.
Another great option for non-vegan individuals who are breastfeeding, eggs offer protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D and folate.
“The most important nutrient in eggs is choline, which is necessary for nervous system development and for building cell structure,” says Hudson.
For vegans, options like lentils, dried fruits, leafy greens and enriched cereal can be a great substitution for the health benefits of eggs.
Load up on ingredients like kale, collard greens, spinach and cabbage. They are full of vitamins A, C, E and K, fiber and calcium. Consider these options when you’re making a salad and sandwiches.
Don’t overlook the power of black beans, garbanzo beans and lentils. They contain vitamin K, antioxidants and calcium, making them great additions to soups and stews.
A study has shown that legumes play an important role in preventing and managing a variety of health conditions.
Go Greek here, says Hudson. While there are many great yogurt options full of calcium, Greek yogurt, which isn’t as processed as most kinds, also contains a higher amount of protein.
Vitamin A, which helps with vision, can be found in sweet potatoes. It also helps organs like your heart, lungs and kidneys form and maintain themselves.
“It helps our cells communicate better,” says Hudson.
Eating just one medium sweet potato (with the skin on) a day meets the daily recommendation of vitamin A. Sweet potatoes are also an excellent source of potassium.
Nuts and seeds
Snack on almonds and walnuts or incorporate chia seeds and hemp seeds into your smoothies to up your calcium intake. Most nuts are high in protein, low in saturated fats and contain no cholesterol.
Sesame seeds, which are high in calcium and copper, supports immune function and red blood cell development. Don’t consume them whole, as they will pass through the digestive tract without you receiving its benefits. Husked and crushed options are ideal. Look for tahini, a savory paste made from sesame seeds, which can be used in hummus and other dishes.
These small fruits have a big impact. Full of fiber, vitamins, flavonoids and potassium, eating apricots helps strengthen blood vessels, reduces inflammation and supports healthy blood pressure. Opt for fresh apricots over canned varieties. Dried apricots are also a great option.
Foods to limit or avoid
Most foods are safe to eat, says Hudson, especially if they’re part of a well-rounded diet. But here are a few foods she says to limit your intake of or avoid altogether:
- Foods with artificial sweeteners.
- Fish with high levels of mercury like shark, mackerel and swordfish.
It is recommended that those who are breastfeeding continue taking their prenatal vitamins for a year after giving birth.
“Is that completely necessary?” says Hudson. “If someone is doing exactly what they need to do with their diet, then probably not. But for some who choose to breastfeed, they can’t always get what they need, so taking prenatal vitamins is a pretty good alternative.”
Taking care of yourself only benefits your baby. Ask for help, whether that’s your partner, family members or friends, when it comes to grocery shopping and making meals.
“Women put themselves second, at best,” says Hudson. “Parenting is a team sport.”