Healthy Science/ What Should I Eat When Breastfeeding?

What Should I Eat When Breastfeeding?

  • In order for your baby to get the appropriate nutrients from your breastmilk, you need to get nutrient-dense foods into your diet
  • The best way to meet your increased calorie needs while breastfeeding is by choosing nutrient-dense foods
  • In addition to a healthy diet, many women need to supplement with particular nutrients while breastfeeding

Taking care of your baby means taking care of you 

It’s been a week since you brought your new addition home from the hospital. You’re sleep deprived and leaking breastmilk, laundry is piled high, and you now have a tiny human life depending on you to take care of them. Chances are, the last thing on your mind is taking care of yourself.  But what if I told you that the new life you are responsible for needs you to focus on yourself in order to develop optimally? 

This article will discuss how breastfeeding mothers can better support their baby’s development by paying attention to their own nutritional needs, along with some helpful dietary tips while breastfeeding.  

Your calorie requirements increase during lactation

Similar to pregnancy, a woman’s calorie demands increase while breastfeeding. Experts estimate that women need an additional 500 calories per day to cover the energy they burn during lactation, and even more if nursing twins.13 So ladies, this is not the time to be cutting calories. However, if you’re worried this will affect your ability to lose the extra baby weight, don’t be alarmed. Research demonstrates that breastfeeding mothers experience a spontaneous increase in fat burning after 3 to 6 months of breastfeeding and start losing more weight than mothers who are not breastfeeding.4 A win-win! Your baby and your body get the extra calories they need, and it may actually help you shed the extra baby weight quicker. 

Focus on nutrient-dense foods while breastfeeding to meet your increased calorie needs

Now does this mean you should help yourself to 500 extra calories worth of pastries every morning? Not exactly. Just like when you were pregnant, what you eat is what your baby eats. So, if you wouldn’t feed it to your baby, you probably shouldn’t feed it to yourself. Instead, try to incorporate a variety of nutrient-dense foods into your diet. Nutrient-dense foods are those that provide the most nutrition for the least number of calories.  Fruits and vegetables are great examples of nutrient-dense foods, along with healthy fats like avocados. See Table 1 for examples of nutrient-dense foods.

To incorporate these foods into your daily diet, have at least 1 non-starchy vegetable at each meal and make fruit or a starchy vegetable your carbohydrate of choice for both meals and snacks. Starchy vegetables include potatoes, peas, corn, winter squash, and pumpkin, while most other vegetables are considered non-starchy. It can be tough to make it to the grocery store for fresh produce during this time, so keeping frozen veggies and fruit on hand is a huge help. And yes, they are just as nutritious as fresh produce, if not more so!5

Table 1. Nutrient-dense foods

Fruits & VegetablesMeat, Poultry & Fish
Sweet potatoesWild Alaskan salmon
PumpkinGrass-fed beef
AsparagusPasture-raised eggs
MushroomsLegumes & Seeds
CarrotsSeeds (chia, flax, hemp)
Red bell peppersRed lentils
Dark leafy greens (kale, collards, spinach) 
Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage,
Brussels sprouts)

Nutrients to keep on your radar while breastfeeding

Along with increased calorie demands, a woman’s nutrient demands also increase during breastfeeding.  In fact, many nutrient requirements are actually higher during lactation than during pregnancy (see Table 2).1,3,6

For some nutrients, the levels in your breastmilk are a reflection of the nutrients in your diet.79 These include the fat-soluble vitamins and some B vitamins. This means that if your diet isn’t providing these nutrients, then your baby isn’t getting them either. See column 1 of Table 3 for a complete list of these nutrients.

For other nutrients, the levels in your breastmilk are not directly correlated to your diet. These include the B vitamin folate, and critical minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc. This means that these nutrients will be present in your breastmilk even if they aren’t in your diet.79 Unfortunately, this means that if your diet is low in these nutrients, then your body will extract those nutrients from your bones and tissues to supply them in your breastmilk. Therefore, your baby will always get the nutrients that she or he needs, but it may come at the cost of leaving you depleted—which can lead to a host of other issues.10 See column 2 of Table 3 for a complete list of these nutrients.

Table 2. Recommended daily allowances (RDA) for women.1

B1 (mg/d)
B6 (mg/d)1.31.92
B12 (µg/d)
Folate (µg/d)400600500
Niacin (mg/d)141817
Vitamin A (µg/d)7007701300
Vitamin D (µg/d)51515
Vitamin E (µg/d)151519
Vitamin K (µg/d)909090
Vitamin C (mg/d)7585120
Calcium (mg/d)1,0001,0001,000
Iron (mg/d)18279
Zinc (mg/d)81112
Phosphorous (mg/d)700700700
Iodine (µg/d)150220290
Selenium (µg/d)556070

Table 3. Nutrients in Breastmilk and Mother’s Diet

Amount in Milk Affected by Mother’s DietAmount in Milk Unaffected by Mother’s Diet*
B1 (thiamin)Calcium
B2 (riboflavin)Folate
B6 (pyridoxine)Iron
B12 (cobalamin) Copper
Choline Zinc
Vitamin DMagnesium
Vitamin APhosphorous 
Vitamin C 
Vitamin K 

 *Remember if your diet is low in these nutrients you are at risk of becoming depleted.7

But is a nutrient-dense well-balanced diet all you need to meet the increased nutritional demands of nursing? Most likely, no.

Below are specific nutrients many breastfeeding women are lacking, which nutrients you should consider supplementing, and other considerations for helping you and your baby achieve optimal nutrition.  

Keep taking your prenatal vitamin while breastfeeding

While it may seem intuitive to stop taking your prenatal vitamin once the prenatal period has ended, continuing to take it postpartum while breastfeeding can help ensure you are getting the wide variety of nutrients you need during lactation.1 In fact, taking a prenatal while nursing may be especially important given that many nutrient demands increase while breastfeeding. That said, you shouldn’t rely on your prenatal vitamin to meet all of your nutritional requirements. Refer to our article Three Key Nutrients Your Prenatal May be Lacking for more information about which nutrients you may be missing. 

Make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin D while breastfeeding

The amount of vitamin D found in a woman’s breastmilk is directly correlated to her vitamin D status.11,12 Unfortunately, common factors such as lack of sun exposure, limited fish intake, and darker skin tone can prevent new mother’s from having adequate vitamin D stores. As a result, the amount of vitamin D provided through breastmilk is generally insufficient for meeting the dietary needs of a developing infant.12 So what should breast feeding mothers do to help remedy this? In order for enough vitamin D to be transferred into their breastmilk, research reports that breastfeeding moms may need to take as much as 6400 IU (160 ug) per day.13 Supplementing infants with vitamin D is highly recommended by pediatricians;14 however, even if you go this route, it’s still important for breastfeeding mothers to supplement themselves in order to prevent the depletion of their own stores. To learn more about the importance of vitamin D for both you and your baby link to these articles: An Introduction to Vitamin D & Why is Vitamin D Important for Infants.

Don’t forget your omega-3s: EPA and DHA while breastfeeding

Obtaining a sufficient amount of the omega-3s EPA and DHA is also critically important during breastfeeding. If you’ve read Why Do I Need DHA During Pregnancy?, you already know that DHA is extremely important during pregnancy for both mom and baby, and that a mother’s DHA stores can easily become depleted in order to provide her infant with a sufficient amount. Unfortunately, this cycle continues when you’re breastfeeding. In a nutshell, if your DHA intake is low, then the amount in your breast milk will also be low, and you may be left running on a shortage of DHA.1517 Therefore, it is recommended that pregnant and breastfeeding women take at least 2.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids and 100–300 mg of DHA daily.18 And don’t forget about the other crucial omega-3, EPA. A substantial amount of research suggests that EPA+DHA has beneficial effects on mood, which can be an issue for many women during the postpartum period.19

What’s more, consuming an adequate amount of EPA and DHA has also been shown to benefit body composition. More specifically, consuming EPA and DHA can promote lean muscle mass, and help lower your BMI, waist circumference, glucose homeostasis, and body fat.2022 Interestingly, some studies suggest that EPA and DHA’s effects on body composition may be gender specific, given that these effects tend to be observed in women .2325 These results suggest that supplementing with omega-3s may help you return to your pre-pregnancy weight faster, especially in combination with breastfeeding.4

Vitamin B12 is especially important for breastfeeding vegans and vegetarians

Similar to vitamin D, the amount of vitamin B12 in your breastmilk is directly affected by your diet. Because your need for this nutrient actually increases from pregnancy to lactation, it is especially important that you obtain an adequate amount while nursing.1,3,8 Vitamin B12 is only found in animal derived foods (e.g., meat, fish, eggs, dairy); thus in order to help meet the 2.8 mcg RDA for lactating women, a B12 supplement is recommended for all vegans and vegetarians who do not consume eggs and/or dairy.1,26 In addition to supporting your memory, mood, and promoting healthy bones, one of the most noteworthy benefits of vitamin B12 is providing your body with energy, which we all know you don’t want to skimp on during this time.2729

While there are many things you want to add to your diet while breastfeeding to improve your health and the health of your baby, there are still a few things you want to be cautious about overconsuming. 

What foods should I avoid/limit while breastfeeding?

Don’t worry, there isn’t anything on the “avoid/limit” list that you weren’t already monitoring while pregnant (in fact, enjoy those coveted soft cheeses!). But there are some foods to continue to avoid while breastfeeding. 

Limit fish consumption to no more than 2-3 times per week

The same rules for consuming fish during pregnancy still apply during breastfeeding, since mercury can pass through breastmilk to the infant.3 Therefore, it is recommended that you continue to eat fish that is low in mercury, and limit consumption to no more than 2-3 times per week.3

Easy on the caffeine

Caffeine has been shown to pass through breastmilk in small amounts and may affect your baby’s sleep patterns.30 Infants, particularly newborn and pre-term infants, metabolize caffeine at a slower rate and have been shown to hold onto it for 65-130 hours.3,31 To put this into perspective, a healthy adult typically holds onto caffeine for 3-7 hours.31 Over time, excess caffeine intake by the mother, transferred through breastmilk, can build up in an infant’s body.  Rest assured that you can still have your morning coffee; however, try to limit yourself to no more than 300 mg of caffeine a day (roughly 2-3 cups).3 Also, don’t forget that most chocolates, teas, sodas, and energy drinks contain caffeine, and thus apply to that caffeine limit.  

Avoid processed foods & refined carbohydrates

In addition to focusing on nutrient-dense foods, you also want to avoid or limit your consumption of processed foods and refined carbohydrates, which typically provide more calories from sugar and unhealthy fats. A good tip to identify processed foods is:  if it’s packaged, it’s most likely processed. Choosing whole foods that don’t come in a package is one of the best ways to avoid processed foods. Refined carbohydrates include anything made with white flour or sugar. Instead of eating refined carbs like white bread and white pasta, focus on consuming more nutrient-dense unrefined carbohydrates, like whole grains, fruit and legumes.  

Refined CarbohydratesUnrefined Carbohydrates
White sugar
(anything made with white sugar)
Whole fruit 
White flour
(anything made with white flour)
Pasta Vegetables 
White bread Whole grains
(the first ingredient must begin with “whole”)
Corn starch 
(usually used to make French fries)
Whole grain, flour, pasta, bread, oats (Note that many have gluten sensitivities)
Most baked goods
(cookies, cakes, doughnuts)
Naturally gluten-free flours (Tapicoa, almond, arrowroot, coconut)
Most breakfast cereals 
(if the first ingredient doesn’t begin with “whole” then it’s refined)
Ancient grains
(quinoa, barley, bulgur, amaranth, buckwheat, farro, millet, spelt, etc.)

Wait at least 2 hours (per drink) after consuming alcohol to begin nursing

Yes, you are now able to have a drink, but there are still some specific measures you need to take in order to ensure the safety of your baby. First, time your drink. That is, make sure that your baby won’t be nursing for a few hours. The ideal time to enjoy an alcoholic beverage would be right after nursing. Next, you must wait at least 2 hours per alcoholic drink before nursing again to ensure the alcohol has fully cleared your body.32 If you ever miss this step and your baby is due for a feeding, a good option is to give your infant a bottle of stored breastmilk. Finally, to prevent dehydration, make sure to drink at least 8 ounces of water per alcoholic beverage. 

Stay hydrated

In order to meet the increased fluid requirements of milk production, it is very important that a lactating mother stay hydrated. Fortunately, this shouldn’t be too challenging since you will most likely be thirstier! You see, your oxytocin hormone levels increase while breastfeeding, which stimulates both milk production and thirst.33 Some tips to help keep you hydrated are: 1)  start your morning off with 16 ounces of water (before any other beverages or food), 2) drink at least 16 ounces of water each time you nurse your baby and 3) consume hydrating foods like fruits and vegetables throughout the day. (Which won’t be difficult since you’ll be focusing on nutrient-dense foods, right?) 

Seek nutrition counseling for extra support

The best way to ensure you are meeting your unique dietary needs while breastfeeding is to seek nutrition counseling with a professional. Counseling provides an individualized approach to nutrition that factors in a woman’s access to food, socioeconomic status, food preferences, and body mass index (BMI).1 Consult your doctor, a registered dietitian, or a certified nutritionist to help facilitate nutrition counseling for extra support personalized to you. 

So, while the majority of your attention is likely going to the new human life in your care, remember that taking care of them means taking care of you!

Body Mass Index (BMI): A measure of weight relative to height. It is a person’s weight in kilograms (kg) divided by his or her height in meters squared (kg/m2).

Glucose homeostasis: The body’s process of balancing blood sugar in the body in order to keep it within a healthy range.

Nutrient-dense: Foods that provide you with the most nutrition for the least number of calories.

Postpartum period: The period of time that begins immediately after the birth of a child and extends for about 6 weeks.

Preterm birth: Birth occurring before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Also called premature birth.

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