Nutritional counseling is the cornerstone of women’s good health during pregnancy and lactation. The nutritional status of the mother not only influences her health, but it also has an impact on the health of the baby.
The World Health Organization (WHO) encourages 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding during the first year of the life. Because mother’s milk is the sole source of nutrition for the infant during these first 6 months, it is important to focus on the mother’s diet and nutrition.
If the mother’s diet does not contain adequate nutrients, it will affect the growth, development and overall health of the baby, even later in life.
Dietary Guidelines for Breastfeeding Mothers
The most common question of new mothers is what to eat while breastfeeding that benefits for my health as well as baby’s growth. Here are important dietary guidelines for the breastfeeding mothers:
Increased Energy Demand
The caloric demand of breastfeeding mothers is higher than women who do not breastfeed. The caloric intake should increase by approximately 500 calories per day during the first 6 months of lactation.
These calories should come from healthy and nourishing whole foods, not empty calories from sweets, packaged foods and snacks.
After delivery, many women restrict their caloric intake in order to lose weight. Such a drop in the calories may put the breast milk supply at risk. Hence, women must practice healthy eating.
After 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding, complementary feeds are introduced and the frequency of breastfeeding is reduced. During this phase, the caloric requirements would be proportionally less.
High Protein Diet
The demand for protein in breastfeeding mothers is higher than non-lactating women. Because protein is an important component of breast milk, eating a protein-rich diet can maximize the milk supply.
Besides this, adequate protein intake improves the quality and composition of the breast milk too. According to RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance), a lactating mother should consume approximately 75 grams of protein per day.
The protein concentration in breast milk is determined by the mother’s calorie, protein and fat intake. Thus, lactating mothers should add different sources of protein to their daily diet, like:
Vegans can add:
- Soy and soy products like tofu.
- Nut milk and yogurts made from almond or coconut.
- Legumes and pulses.
- Nuts and oilseeds.
Vegetarians can depend on:
- Milk and milk products like curd, buttermilk, cottage cheese and other low-fat cheese.
- Legumes and pulses.
- Nuts and oilseeds.
- Soy and soy products.
Non-vegetarians should increase their intake of:
- Milk and milk products
- Soy and soy products
- Legumes and pulses
- Nuts and oilseeds
- Lean meat like chicken
- Fatty fish
Non-vegetarians must keep in mind that though red meat is a good source of protein, it also contains unhealthy fat, which increases the risk of having bad cholesterol in the blood and heart diseases. Therefore, it is important to strictly limit or avoid intake of red meat.
Besides this, one should be careful about their fish intake. Though fish is important for the healthy development of the brain and eyes, certain types of fish should be avoided because they contain high amounts of mercury and other poisonous substances, which can be harmful. Breastfeeding mothers should stay away from fish, which include:
- King mackerel
Mothers should choose low mercury fish, such as:
If the mother’s diet is low in protein, your healthcare provider may recommend some healthy protein supplements to meet the increased demands.
Choose Healthy Fat
Lactating mothers should not go overboard on fat intake. Instead, they should choose healthy sources of fat, like MUFA and PUFA. Studies have indicated that the fatty acid content of breast milk and the mother’s diet are correlated.
Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids that cannot be produced by the body and have numerous health benefits. These fatty acids are then converted to DHA, which is important for the brain health as well as the nervous system of the baby.
Mothers can get DHA by eating fatty fish at least twice a week. Lactating mothers who are vegetarian can depend upon DHA supplements, but it is important to consult your healthcare provider first.
Sources of healthy fat include:
- Peanut oil
- Olive oil
- Fatty fish
- Nuts and oilseeds
- Cow’s Ghee
Nursing mothers must strictly stay away from trans-fat, an unhealthy type of fat that can cause unhealthy weight gain and damage the heart.
However, some mothers strictly avoid fat intake in order to lose weight. This practice may hinder the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin A, D, E and K. Therefore, a moderate fat intake is recommended.
Increase the Intake of Calcium
Calcium intake is crucial during pregnancy and lactation because the bone mineral density is lowered and bone resorption is increased with the greatest consequence during the third trimester, which continues until the period of lactation.
Women lose 300-400 milligrams of calcium daily through breast milk. This calcium demand is met by 5-10% loss of skeletal mineral content. Therefore, increased calcium intake should be encouraged during lactation to replace the maternal skeletal calcium stores, which are depleted during this phase.
Besides this, an adequate calcium intake by the breastfeeding mothers has a positive impact on the bone health of the baby. Proper calcium intake can be attained by the intake of the following foods:
- Milk and milk products like curd, thick buttermilk, cottage cheese and other low-fat cheese.
- Leafy greens like kale, spinach and collard greens.
- Foods fortified with calcium.
Get Adequate Vitamin D
The period of breastfeeding often begins with a maternal diet deficit in vitamin D. Lactating mothers are often vitamin D deficient as compared to non-lactating mothers because:
- Women lose vitamin D via breast milk.
- An inadequate maternal vitamin D status during pregnancy may further deplete the vitamin stores during breastfeeding.
- A higher body weight gain and BMI during lactation or post-pregnancy may lower the vitamin D status in breastfeeding women.
Studies have observed that a higher maternal vitamin D status may result in a higher vitamin D status of breast milk. If the mother’s diet is deficient in vitamin D, the chances of certain infections as well as rickets increases in young infants who are completely dependent upon breast milk for nutrition.
By paying close attention to your diet, one can meet their vitamin D demands. Foods containing vitamin D include:
- Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel.
- Organ meat.
- Vitamin D fortified foods like milk, yogurt, orange juice, cereals.
Continue with Folic Acid
Folic acid intake is extremely crucial before and during pregnancy. Research has observed that eating a diet rich in folic acid is also beneficial for breastfeeding mothers. Folic acid prevents neural tube defects in infants and increases the production of red blood cells.
Folate supplementation during lactation helps in the preservation of maternal folate stores and prevents deficiency of this B vitamin. Foods containing folic acid include:
- Dark green leafy vegetables.
- Beans and lentils.
- Citrus fruits.
Your doctor may even put you on a folic acid supplement. Continue with the supplement as well as folic acid-containing foods.
Increase Intake of Zinc
Zinc is an essential trace mineral, which is required by individuals of all age groups. Studies have observed that maternal zinc status reflects the zinc concentration in breast milk.
A deficiency of zinc in infants may hinder their growth, have a negative impact on their development and may damage the immune system of your little one. Zinc deficiency also increases the incidence of cytomegalovirus infection in infants.
Because zinc is so important for your baby, it is important to load the maternal diet with good sources of zinc. Foods rich in zinc include:
- Legumes and pulses.
- Nuts and oilseeds.
- Lean Meat.
- Whole grains.
Important Dietary and Nutrition Tips for Breastfeeding Mothers
Here are some tips to improve health of breastfeeding mothers and baby.
Increase Intake of Fluids
Breastfeeding mothers must increase their intake of fluids. A study found that breast milk supply increased with increased fluid intake and decreased with the decreased fluid intake. Women should opt for healthy fluid options like:
- Fresh juices.
Drink at least 8-10 glasses of water per day.
Avoid Alcohol & Aerated Drinks
Lactating women must completely avoid intake of alcohol and aerated drinks. Plus, beverages containing artificial colors, flavors and preservatives should also be out of the diet.
Avoid Refined Sugars
Be wise and do not consume foods with heavy portions refined sugars. Get healthy calories from whole grains, protein-rich foods, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Avoid Canned Foods
Choose fresh and seasonal fruits and vegetables over canned ones. Canned foods have a high content of sugar, salt and preservatives, which can have a negative impact on the health of the mother and the baby.
Eat Lactogenic Foods
Eat natural foods that enhance the production of breast milk as well as improve its composition. Some examples of lactogenic foods are:
- Cumin seeds
- Fenugreek seeds
- Dark green leafy vegetables
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