Nutrition, Exercise, and Weight Loss While Breastfeeding

by Anne Smith, IBCLC

The majority of mothers are aware of the importance of eating nutritious foods while they are expecting a baby.  Assuming that you ate an adequate diet while you were pregnant, you can produce plenty of milk for your baby by keeping up this motivation and making sure that you continue your healthy eating patterns during lactation. While you should attempt to eat a “good diet” while you are nursing, you need to be aware that your diet doesn’t have to be perfect in order to support breastfeeding. You can still nurse your baby even if your diet is less than ideal. You may be surprised to learn that studies have shown that maternal nutrition has only a minor effect on the composition and quantity of breastmilk produced. Usually, unless a mother is severely malnourished, her milk is fine. Mothers whose diets are poor deplete their own energy levels, and may become anemic, but their bodies will continue to produce the milk their baby needs by pulling from the mother’s energy stores at her expense, but not her baby’s.

Most women in this country don’t suffer from a lack of food, but rather from eating too much of the wrong kinds. There are no special dietary rules to follow during lactation. If your eating habits are fairly healthy, there is no reason to change them while you are nursing. There are no special foods to avoid, or certain foods that you need to eat (like milk) in order to produce a plentiful supply of nutritious breast milk. With rare exceptions, nursing mothers can eat pretty much anything they want to – including chocolate, broccoli, pizza, and diet soda – in moderation.

Many dietitians and lactation experts feel that one advantage to breastfeeding may be that the milk is flavored by the foods the mother eats, so the baby becomes used to a variety of taste sensations, and tends to have fewer feeding problems as he gets older. One well-known study showed that when mothers ate lots and lots of garlic, their breast milk tasted and smelled like garlic. Not only did the babies who drank the milk not have any digestive problems, but they actually preferred the garlicky milk over the unflavored milk.

Think about it – women in South America who eat lots of peppers, or women in India who eat lots of curry don’t have babies any more colicky or fussy than babies in the U.S. You’ve probably heard that eating “gassy” foods like cabbage, beans, or broccoli will make your baby gassy. That’s one of many “old wives tales”, because gas is produced when bacteria in the intestine interact with the intestinal fiber. Neither gas or fiber can pass into the bloodstream, or into your breast milk, even when your stomach is gassy.

Although it is possible for a baby to be sensitive to a food in his mother’s diet, he is much more likely to react to a food given to him directly. I suspect that most mothers who swear that they can’t eat – pizza, Mexican food, broccoli , cabbage, beans, chocolate, etc. – while they are nursing are actually overreacting to their baby’s normal behavior on any  given day. There is a natural tendency for a nursing mother – and everyone around her – to attribute every little thing her baby does to breastfeeding. ALL babies have days when they are gassy, fussy, and spit up, or are just cranky in general.  Some babies have sensitive digestive systems, and no matter what you feed them, they will experience outbs of intestinal upsets. The one thing you can be sure of is that there is nothing you can put into a sensitive infant’s stomach that will be easier to digest than breastmilk. (See Spitting Up: Is it Reflux?“)

When you’re nursing, you start to think things like “He’s so gassy today…could it be something I ate ? Yep, I had pizza for dinner last night…that must be it. I can’t eat pizza from now on. And I really do love pizza…” When taken to extremes, this sort of thinking can lead to a diet of nothing but boiled chicken and plain white rice.

In over 25 years of experience in working with nursing mothers, I have seen very few cases of food sensitivity that required extensive diet modifications.  I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, just that it is not nearly as common as most moms think. It is estimated that only 3-7% of babies will have any type of food sensitivity or allergy, and the majority of these allergies will be mild.

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