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10 Nutrient-Rich Foods That Are Perfect for Breastfeeding Moms

As a breastfeeding mother, you’re probably no stranger to the seemingly constant hunger that comes with this stage of life. So how to stay on top of your appetite to best provide for yourself and a growing baby? A nutrient-rich diet is key to boosting the quality and quantity of breast milk. There are many foods that can help increase the nutritional content of breast milk, while also providing health benefits for both mothers and babies. Let’s find out which vitamins and minerals are most crucial for breastfeeding moms, and the foods that can help you meet your needs. 

Is it possible to boost nutrients in breastmilk?

You've heard the saying, "You are what you eat" and in no other way is this truer than with breastmilk.

The nutrient content of breastmilk is directly related to mom's diet, and the vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats she consumes. And while it's true that breast milk is designed to be the perfect food for infants, its nutrients and calorie composition can change depending on a mother’s diet (1).

Nutrients are transferred from mom to baby in breastmilk, which means if mom is low in a particular nutrient, such as vitamin D, then it’s likely her milk will be as well. 

The macronutrient in breast milk that changes the most as a result of a mother’s diet is fat. The type of fat and how much is important to make sure baby has the necessary fatty acids he or she needs for proper brain and eye development. Mother’s who eat mostly Western diets are almost frequently low in fatty acids like EPA and DHA.

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Nutrient deficiencies are common with breastfeeding

Breastfeeding an infant comes with a huge caloric demand, and, as a result, an increase in demand for vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients as well.

And while nutrient deficiencies are uncommon for most people, the same cannot be said for breastfeeding moms. One recent survey found that almost half of pregnant or breastfeeding women are deficient in at least one micronutrient (2). 

The top most common nutrient deficiencies for pregnant and nursing women are (3): 

  • Vitamin D
  • Magnesium
  • Iodine
  • Folate 
  • Iron
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin K
  • Vitamin A
  • B12
  • Zinc

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These vitamins and minerals are necessary for healthy hormone function, DNA repair, energy production, and so much more. 

Those who have digestive issues such as IBS or IBD, malabsorption, or who follow a vegetarian and vegan diet may be at increased risk for nutrient deficiencies while breastfeeding.

Read: Tips for Maximizing Nutrient Absorption from Foods & Supplements

Can breastfeeding cause vitamin deficiencies in the mother?

Breastfeeding itself doesn’t cause nutrient deficiencies, but if the mother’s nutrient stores are low, there may not be enough of certain nutrients available in her milk supply. 

During pregnancy, the mother supplies most of the nutrients that the growing baby needs, which is why many mothers become low in iron, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin B9, iodine, and selenium. She may also have low availability of important omega-3 fats like DHA, and certain amino acids like glycine.

The need for many micronutrients actually increases even more during lactation than pregnancy, and improving breastfeeding nutrition can make a big impact on the health of both mom and baby. 

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What can decrease nutrients in breast milk?

Nutrition status is highly dependent upon diet, but also environmental factors like financial status, social and cultural habits, age, and genetics. Reasons why moms today might have low nutrition status other than a poor diet are:

High levels of stress that deplete nutrients like vitamin C and B6. Stress has a profoundly negative effect on hormone imbalance, immune function, and gut health.

Women are having babies later in life. In the U.S. the average age for a mother having her first baby is 26, up from 21.

Women are often in a depleted state going into motherhood with stress, demanding careers, busy social schedules, and sleep deprivation, among other challenges.

Read: The Nutrition Supplement Guide | Health Benefits, Dosages, & Facts 

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Nutrients of concern for the breastfeeding mom

A balanced diet of nutrient-dense foods provides all the nutrients mom needs to sustain herself and baby’s development. Depending on lifestyle, food accessibility, and personal preferences, some moms may struggle to get enough of the following nutrients.

Omega-3 Fats, EPA + DHA

Two types of omega-3 fats—DHA and EPA—are crucial for brain and eye development in infants, but a nationwide nutrition survey found that young women in the U.S. have DHA levels in breastmilk below even the worldwide average (4).  This is mostly because people in the U.S. consume little seafood on average, which is our main source of omega-3—not nearly enough for optimal DHA levels in breastmilk. 

Salmon, sardines, mackerel, or oysters are a great source of omega-3s, but if you don’t prefer seafood, supplementing with a high quality fish oil is a good option.

B Vitamins, Especially B12

Vitamin B12 is definitely a nutrient of concern for breastfeeding moms, especially those following vegetarian diets. Mothers who don’t get enough B12 in their diet in pregnancy and breastfeeding aren’t able to pass along enough to their infants (5). 

Inadequate vitamin B12 during a baby’s first months is linked with neurological damage that can’t always be corrected if it occurs (6). Most animal products are good sources of B vitamins, including B12.

Choline

Choline plays a key role in brain function, memory, and neurotransmitter function, but it doesn’t often get the attention it deserves. Needs for this vitamin-like nutrient are at the absolute highest during lactation, but it’s concerning because many women in the U.S. aren’t getting enough (7). 

The richest food sources for choline are animal proteins—especially eggs.

Vitamin D3

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that exclusively breastfed babies be supplemented with 400 IU of vitamin D per day. This is primarily because mothers low in vitamin D, simply won’t have enough vitamin D available to transfer into her breast milk. 

Research shows that vitamin D content in breast milk can be improved if a mother consumes more vitamin D. One study found that women receiving 6400 IU of vitamin D per day had higher vitamin D levels and passed enough vitamin D into their breastmilk to meet the demands of their baby (8). 

In addition to the above, also important are iron, zinc, electrolytes like magnesium and potassium, and adequate protein.

10 Best Foods for Breastfeeding moms

Which nutritious foods can help boost milk production for breastfeeding women and help pack a powerful boost of nutrition? Here’s a few foods to eat while breastfeeding that can help you and baby feel your best.

Eggs

Eggs provide high-quality protein for mom and baby. Plus, the yolks are jam packed with a dozen different vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids, including choline, B12, vitamin D, and disease-fighting lutein and zeaxanthin.

Pistachios

Pistachios are one of the highest protein nuts, plus they’re a good source of magnesium and zinc. They help fuel your body with essential amino acids, fiber, and healthy fats. These nutrients support hormone balance and a healthy stress response. 

Add crushed pistachios to yogurt, muesli, or as a salad topper. They’re also super convenient when you get those intense hunger pains during late-night feedings. 

Muesli

Muesli is a gluten-free breakfast that’s popular in Switzerland and Germany, and it’s full of soluble fiber, iron, zinc, and folate. It’s usually made with a base of rolled oats, plus a serving of walnuts or pecans, pumpkin seeds, coconut, and/or dried fruits. 

Muesli is raw, and doesn’t contain any extra sweetener, and it’s usually served with yogurt, cream, or milk, adding a healthy serving of both protein and fat. Plenty of nutrition to support the higher protein and calorie needs during breastfeeding. 

Avocado

Bring on the guac! Avocados are energy-dense and a healthy way to help meet your nutrition needs during breastfeeding. They’re packed with fiber and healthy fats, which helps to keep you feeling fuller, longer. They’re also a great source of B6 and magnesium, two nutrients breastfeeding moms need. 

Aside from traditional preparation, avocados are also an easy way to add extra calories to smoothies, creating a more filling snack that’s especially useful if you’re on the go (or don’t have two hands available for eating).

Canned salmon

Salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, including the fat DHA, which is present in human breast milk and contributes to brain development.

Since omega-3 fats are prone to oxidation, which can be harmful to your body’s cells, it’s important to choose a product that has been screened for PCBs, mercury, and other toxins.

Want more omega-3 fats but don’t love fish? Find an omega-3 supplement that’s right for you (and your kids!)

Bone broth

Bone broth is made with otherwise unusable bones, marrow, and connective tissue to turn these cuts into rich sources of collagen and gelatin when cooked. 

Gelatin has a unique profile of amino acids, and is particularly high in glycine. Glycine and collagen in both broth support the healing of connective tissues postpartum (hello, pelvic floor and abdominal muscles!).

Glycine has also been shown to support relaxation and better quality sleep—two things that are precious when you have a nursing infant. 

Rose hips

The rose hip is a small, sweet, and tangy fruit from the rose plant, and it just so happens to be loaded with antioxidant vitamin C. Vitamin C plays a substantial role in tissue growth and repair, making it essential for proper development of a breastfeeding infant. It is especially important in the growth of bones, teeth and collagen, a protein found in blood vessels, cartilage, tendons and ligaments.

You can easily find rose hip tea, supplements, and oil in your local natural foods store. If you’re lucky, you may have rose hips growing wild near you, though it’s important to verify that they’re safe for consumption before eating them. 

Sweet potatoes

Since calorie needs increase quite a bit while breastfeeding, adding sweet potatoes to your diet can help make sure you get enough calories for milk production, as well as beta-carotene, potassium, and dietary fiber.

Nut butter

Nut butters are another versatile way to add filling calories to your diet if you’re trying to increase milk supply, as well as healthy fats and fiber.

For a quick and easy snack, keep a container of nut butter, along with a piece of fruit or crackers near where you nurse often for an easy snack while you’re sitting down to nurse.

Pumpkin Seeds

Pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, are a rich source of non-heme iron, protein and fiber. In only a quarter of a cup of pumpkin seeds you’ll find 7 grams of protein, 13 grams of healthy fat, and 2 grams of fiber. Because pumpkin seeds are also a good source of minerals, they help baby with nerve cell development, and mom with maintaining healthy blood and energy.

Only the best for nursing moms

Though it may seem like a daunting task, eating well while breastfeeding is important for both mom and baby. By consuming a balanced diet with plenty of nutrient-rich foods, you can provide your little one with the best possible start in life, and nourish your body as well. 

If you’re looking for more ways to improve your diet, or need help getting the right nutrition, you’ll love working with our certified nutritionists to develop the perfect plan for your needs.

Resources 

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29407004/
  2. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2736174
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5793275/  
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33516092/ 
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3470622/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3137939/ 
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6722688/
  8. https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/136/4/625

Tags

breastfeeding, holistic pediatrics


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