By Petra Colindres, MA, RDN/LD, IBCLC, CPT
You often hear that when you’re pregnant, you’re eating for two. Though this is true, ironically, it actually takes less calories to create a child than to breastfeed one! When a mother is breastfeeding, it is common to feel hungrier than you were when pregnant, have more cravings, and even need more nutrients. But how do you navigate these tricky waters -- what should you eat? How many calories more do you actually need? Are all calories created equal?
Let’s start with how many extra calories a mother actually needs. Breastfeeding burns an average of 500 calories per day. Of course, this caloric number varies -- a mother can burn anywhere between 350 to 1000 extra calories a day depending on genetics, amount of breastfeeding children, gestational age of child when born, and other factors. What does 500 extra calories a day look like in regards of nutrition? That’s a plain bagel with 2 tablespoons cream cheese, 4 slices of bacon, a peanut butter sandwich with a glass of milk… you get the idea. In reality, it’s not hard to fit in an extra 500 calories a day.
What I love about breastfeeding is that the average calories needed a day, 500 calories, is also the perfect number to lose 1 pound a week of pregnancy weight. Breastfeeding is known as a great way to begin losing the pregnancy weight, and it’s true! In fact, if you eat well and don’t splurge too often, it’s quite easy to breastfeed your way to pre-pregnancy weight if that's your goal.
Since breastfeeding mothers are burning so many calories, many think that it is okay to eat whatever they want during this time. Hey, it’ll burn off anyway! This is not entirely true and, in some cases, eating too much of the wrong foods can actually cause more harm then good.
A mother’s body is designed to make optimal breastmilk regardless of her diet intake. However, what can and does change are the types of fat in breastmilk. What that means is that if a mother is eating a diet high in Omega-3s, these Omega-3s will show up in a greater quantity as fat in her breastmilk. The opposite of this is true as well, if a mother is eating a ton of saturated fat, then her milk will have a lot of saturated fat. Eating fat is important and is especially important for the
developing child, since from birth to five the infant brain is developing at an astounding rate. The types of fat that a mother is consuming should benefit the developing child. I advise my mothers to eat a slightly higher fat diet (about 30-35% of their calories) but of beneficial fats such as Omega 3s, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Foods that are high in these types of fats include chia and flax seeds, fish, nuts and seeds, avocados, olives, brussels sprouts, kale, and spinach. Though saturated fats such as cheese and other processed foods are tasty and easy, I think it is best to limit these cravings as much as possible, for the benefit of the child.
Another food item that is easy to take advantage of while breastfeeding is sugar. Of course, sugar is tasty and it can be beneficial at moments -- nothing hits the energy stream quicker! Sugar can give that extra boost of energy when mothers need it most, and those moments may seem quite often during those first 12 weeks. It is possible to overdo it though. Too much sugar can not only increase weight and mess up insulin levels, it can also make a mother more prone to yeast infections such as thrush. Many mothers I know overdo it on sugar (both natural and added) and as a consequence have increased incidences of thrush, which does NOT feel good while breastfeeding! Of course, not every mother is prone to this, but it is a casual relationship.
To eat well during breastfeeding, I guide my clients toward the same guidelines as pregnant or non-breasfeeding: Have half of your plate full of vegetables, a quarter of your plate from a lean protein source, and the remaining quarter from a healthy whole wheat option or starchy vegetable such as sweet potato. Oh, and some fruit as dessert! One thing I do add have my
breastfeeding moms add is to make sure they have a good source of fat and fiber on their plates to keep full. Simple recommendations include sprinkling chia seeds on your vegetables, adding a tablespoon or two of walnuts to that cooked chicken or adding some dark chocolate to that fruit.
Eating well for breastfeeding does not have to be complicated! A few simple guidelines to live by, regardless of breastfeeding or not, is to eat something green everyday, get more fiber, eat as many vegetables as you can, and enjoy what you eat!
For more information and healthy family tidbits, please feel free to reach out to me. Follow me on Twitter @PetraNutrition, on Facebook or on instagram @nutritionbypetra to see some of my favorite meals. You can also sign up for my newsletter at www.nutritionbypetra.com.
Petra Colindres is a Family Dietitian and Lactation Consultant with a passion for infant nutrition and prenatal education, valuing the importance of the first thousand days of an infant’s life (from conception to 2 years) to be the standard for future successful health outcomes. Petra owns Nutrition by Petra, a pregnancy and early childhood nutrition consultation practice that provides at-home lactation assistance and pediatric nutrition support. Petra’s hobbies are running/working out, teaching cooking classes around the state, and playing with her first child Bodie. Follow Petra on Twitter @PetraNutrition, on Facebook or on instagram @nutritionbypetra to see some of her favorite baby meals. You can also email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.