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The Healthy Breastfeeding Diet: 8 Foods Nursing Parents Need to Eat

by Vannessa Rhoades 01 Feb 2023
The Healthy Breastfeeding Diet: 8 Foods Nursing Parents Need to Eat

Nursing a newborn? You don’t have to stick to a super strict diet in order to make nutrient-rich breast milk. That said, replenishing your body with a variety of nutritious foods is important after having a baby. A healthy, diverse diet helps support your breast milk production and can help you feel better both mentally and physically. Let’s take a look at some of the best food for a breastfeeding mom and baby.

Why Good Nutrition Is Important When Breastfeeding

A nursing parent gets hungry often. This is because producing breast milk requires additional energetic output and increased levels of certain nutrients. It’s estimated that a nursing parent’s energy needs increase by approximately 500 calories per day. There’s also an increased need for protein, vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, B12, selenium, and zinc. This is why consuming an assortment of nutritious, minimally processed foods is so important for your health and your baby’s health. 

It’s also worth noting that elements of the foods you eat affect the composition, taste, and color of your milk. Research has demonstrated that nursies babies get acclimated to the taste of foods in their mother's diets and develop preferences for those types of foods later in life. Therefore, eating meals full of healthy, nutritious foods—including fruits and vegetables—while you're nursing helps lay the basis for good eating habits for your child in the future.

Maintaining a Healthy Diet When Nursing

The best foods for breastfeeding moms should include a diet of high-fiber carbohydrates, healthy fats, and vitamin- and mineral-rich protein sources. Avoid skipping meals. Respect your body’s hunger cues by having a snack or a meal. Staying hydrated is also essential since breast milk is mostly water. Your healthcare provider may recommend a supplemental multivitamin to ensure all of your vitamin and mineral needs are being met.

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Important Nutrients for Breastfeeding Parents

There are several key nutrients that foster your newborn’s growth and development. These include the following:

  • Calcium helps strengthen teeth and bones and is necessary for blood clotting. Good sources include milk, yogurt, cheese, leafy greens, salmon (with bones), tofu, fortified nut milk and juice, poppy seeds, and legumes.
  • Vitamin D assists your body in absorbing calcium. It's also essential for healthy teeth and bones. Though your skin produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, it is also found in certain foods, like fatty fish, egg yolks, beef liver, and foods fortified with vitamin D such as cereals, orange juice, milk, and yogurt.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, like DHA and EPA, help your baby's brain and eyes grow. Nursing parents should aim to eat at least 200 mg of DHA per day. Add omega-3 fats to your diet by eating fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, and sardines), eggs, and liver.
  • Iron stimulates the creation of new red blood cells and moves oxygen throughout the body. Iron can be found in meat, fish, liver, beans, tofu, leafy green vegetables, nuts, eggs, and whole grains.
  • Folate (folic acid) is a B vitamin that aids in healthy brain and nervous system development. Increase your folate by consuming beef liver, beans, citrus, dark green vegetables, and fortified cereals.
  • Protein creates and supports all the components of the body, from bones to organ tissue to hormones. Eat protein with every meal if possible. Meats, dairy products, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and grains are all healthy sources of protein.
  • Iodine is essential for healthy thyroid function which aids in growth and brain development. Nursing parents should use iodized salt when cooking and consume other iodine-rich foods, like seafood and dairy products.
  • Vitamin A is important for healthy eyes and skin. Red, orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables, dark leafy green vegetables, liver, and dairy products are good sources of vitamin A.
  • Vitamin C plays an important role in the development of healthy bones, teeth, ligaments, and blood vessels. It also assists in iron absorption. Healthy sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits and juices, strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, mangoes, and dark green vegetables.
  • Zinc helps several processes in the body, including protein synthesis, wound healing, and immune function. Meat, seafood, dairy products, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans are all rich in zinc.

What to Buy at the Grocery Store When Breastfeeding 

Nursing parents can get all the healthy nutrients they and their babies need by eating a variety of healthy foods from the food pyramid. Here's a shopping list of foods to pick up next time you head to the supermarket.

    • Vegetables: Vegetables should constitute a significant portion of your diet, especially dark leafy greens (broccoli, spinach, kale, lettuce), carrots, peas, squash, peppers, and sweet potatoes.
    • Fruits: Apples, oranges, bananas, pears, peaches, strawberries, grapes, melons, pineapples, and grapefruits are delicious, refreshing options. Select fruit juices, canned fruit, and dried fruit with no added sugar.
    • Dairy products: Low-fat or fat-free dairy products fortified with vitamins A and D, like milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, cream cheese, and sour cream. 
    • Meat and seafood: Try beef, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, and seafood. Opt for leaner cuts of meat, and when available, choose organic, grass-fed meat and wild-caught seafood to get the most omega-3 fats. Avoid fried meats, hot dogs, and deli meats when possible.
    • Whole grains: Select whole grains over refined grains when possible as these offer more fiber and B vitamins. Try whole wheat pasta, whole grain bread, brown rice, tortillas, whole grain cereals, muffins, bagels, and crackers. 
    • Nuts, seeds, and beans: Peanuts, peanut butter, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, dried beans, lentils, nuts, and nut butter are delicious, healthy options.
    • Fats and oils: Choose oils that are high in healthy fats, like avocado oil, canola oil, coconut oil, nut oils, and olive oil.
    • Beverages: Water, carbonated water, 100% vegetable and fruit juices (no added sugar). You can also drink coffee and tea, but try to limit caffeine consumption. 

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      Foods to Avoid When You're Breastfeeding

      Nursing doesn’t mean you have to avoid all of your favorite foods and drinks. There are, however, some items you’ll probably want to limit or consume in moderation for the health of your baby. 

      • Alcohol passes into breast milk. Therefore, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends avoiding alcohol while breastfeeding. Some nursing parents may want to indulge in an occasional glass of wine or beer. If this is the case, consume your drink at least 2 hours ahead of nursing or pumping and talk to your doctor in advance to get their advice.
      • Caffeine doesn’t really show up much in breast milk, but some nursing parents notice increased fussiness in their little ones when they consume more than 3 cups of caffeinated beverages per day. Consider limiting your intake.
      • High-mercury fish and seafood, like king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, and tuna (bigeye), should be avoided. These fish contain high levels of mercury, which can accumulate in the body over time and cause harm to the nervous system. Babies and young children are at increased risk because of their small body size. 

      The Takeaway

      Remember, there's no reason to go on a special diet while you're nursing. Just concentrate on making healthy choices — and you and your baby will enjoy the benefits.

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