How to Diet While Breastfeeding

After 9 long months of pregnancy and weight gain, many new moms quickly begin thinking about dieting in hopes of losing some of that extra weight. Nursing mothers often consider dieting long before their baby is ready to stop breastfeeding. While going on a “diet” is not recommended while nursing, there are several safe and healthy ways for nursing mothers to change their diet without compromising the quality and quantity of breast milk available for their babies. Losing weight while you’re nursing is not as difficult as you may think.

Staying Healthy for You and Your Baby
Let your body naturally lose weight first. You won’t have to force the dieting in order to shed those post baby pounds. Breastfeeding naturally burns calories (about 500 a day)[1] and much of the weight will go away naturally as your body shrinks. Even your lactating breasts can add a couple pounds, so don’t worry too much about dieting. Losing those 30 pounds will be easier than you think. This article will discuss healthy ways to keep you from putting on any more weight (and possibly even lose a small amount of weight), but in general you should wait until after you stop breastfeeding to start dieting.
For example, let’s say you normally ate about 2000 calories a day, pre-baby. During pregnancy, you gained 35 pounds. Now, you’ll lose about 9-10 pounds just by giving birth.[2] You’ll lose another several pounds as your body naturally shrinks down and puts itself back together. Now for the rest of those pounds, right? A diet would normally involve cutting your calories intake by about 500 calories, which your body is already doing by making breast milk. Simply by feeding yourself a healthy diet and breastfeeding your baby, you will lose all of the baby weight in just a few months.

The fact of the matter is that you’re supposed to eat more and be a little rounder when you’re pregnant and for a while after you have your baby. This is normal and healthy! By trying to get thin again so soon after your baby is born, you put yourself at risk. You may also be putting your child at risk, if your dieting choices lead you to an unhealthy diet.

Don’t follow structured or fad diets. The diets that you normally consider when you think of dieting are largely going to hurt you and your baby. This is especially true of any diet which limits your food groups. You need to a widely varied diet in order to get the nutrients that your baby needs and keep your own body healthy. As a general rule, you want to eat healthy and exercise during this time, not do anything that that promises to drop X pounds in Y days.
Atkins, South Beach, and any diet that goes very heavy on the protein and fish (like the Mediterranean diet or the Zone diet) can pose a problem for your health.

Count calories the right way. You will find websites that tell you not to count calories at all, but that advice is a little too black-and-white. What you definitely shouldn’t do is listen to some specific number of calories you should be having in a day. However, if you tailor your calorie count to your age, body, and activity level, then you can help make sure that you won’t gain any more weight. Done carefully and slowly, you can even begin to lose a little weight by getting slightly fewer calories than you need. You can find a number of calorie calculators online. The best method, however, is to talk to a registered professional who can help you calculate the right number for your body.

Keep in mind that breastfeeding naturally burns 500 calories a day. If you’re eating healthy and at the same level you did before your pregnancy, you should lower your weight naturally over time.

Vary the food groups in your diet. Eating a widely varied, healthy diet is the best thing that you can do both for your own body and for your baby. Your baby is growing very quickly at this time (growing almost 1” a month and gaining more than 50% of its birth weight every week!), so it will need lots of nutrients in order to do that. What you don’t provide by eating a healthy diet, your body will forcibly pull from its stores (which can have a harmful affect on your health). [3]
You’ll want to make sure to cover all of the food groups, getting the right amounts of protein, grains, fruits, and vegetables for your body. Generally, 50% of your food should be fruits and veggies (mostly veggies), with the remaining half of your food being roughly split between grains and protein.[4]
Food actually changes the taste of your breast milk, so eating a highly varied diet may also make your baby a better eater down the line. [5]

Stay away from foods that are hazardous to your baby. There are also, of course, lots of things you’re not supposed to have while breastfeeding. The least dangerous are parsley and mint, which will just make you stop producing milk, and the most dangerous are alcohol and many medications, which can damage your baby’s body. You should also avoid caffeine, which includes coffee, soda, and chocolate, and black teas, since your baby’s body cannot break it down yet.
After your baby reaches 3 months, it will become easier to digest the caffeine and you may be able to have small amounts.[6]
Some women pump their milk ahead of time so that they can fit in one night of drinking or other of these dangerous substances. This can be okay as long as you do it smartly and infrequently, but keep in mind that some trace amounts of these substances can remain in your milk for awhile and you might still be putting your child at risk.

Consider cutting out foods that may cause problems for some babies. Some foods cause problems for some people and don’t cause problems for others. It is not that these foods are necessarily dangerous (like alcohol); they might be hard for your particular baby to digest, making diapers a bit more interesting for a while and giving you a cranky baby to deal with. Foods that you can experiment with, but might want to avoid, include:
Citrus, which bothers some babies’ tummies. You’ll have to be really careful about getting Vitamin C if you cut citrus, however.

Broccoli and garlic, which affect the taste of breast milk. These strong flavors will end up in your milk, which might make baby turn away from the breast at first. They should get over it, though, when they get hungry enough.

Spicy foods. Painful for you, painful for them.

Common allergens (milk, peanuts, etc.)[7]

Eating Effectively
Avoid empty calories at all costs. Empty calories are calories which contain little or no significant nutrients.[8] Empty calories will provide nothing to you or your baby and only lead you to gain more weight. Because of this, if you are trying to lose that post baby weight then you are really going to want to avoid empty calories.
Empty calories are generally associated with sugars and solid fats.

Examples of common sources of empty calories are ice cream, cookies, soda, cheap juices, cake, pizza, cheese, and butter.

Occasional indulgences, such as for a birthday celebration, are okay but these should not hold a common place in your diet.

Practice portion control. Many people eat too much food when they do eat. Eating smaller amounts of food at one time can help you stick to a reasonable calorie count. To get yourself eating better portions of food, try using a side or salad plate to eat your meal. Come back for seconds only if you are still hungry after 15 minutes.
A good rule of thumb is that if you’re eating as much as you would in a restaurant, you might be eating too much.

You’ll also need to learn to recognize when you’re really full. Remember: you don’t want to feel stuffed. You just want to feel not-hungry.

Wait for your food to settle. Waiting for your food to begin to digest can help you to realize when you’re really full. This is great for preventing over-eating and even more post-baby weight gain. Give your body 15 minutes after eating a small meal and then go back for (a smaller portion of) seconds if you’re still hungry or top it off with healthy snacks, like broccoli.

Eat frequent micro meals. Another technique is to eat micro meals, or basically really healthy snacks, and skip the standard “two big meals” altogether.[9] By eating small amounts of food throughout the day, you can feel more full and energetic. This is also easier on a new mom, since finding time to cook and eat can be really tough.
A sample daily diet would look like a bowl of oatmeal, a banana, and a protein shake when you wake up, celery sticks on your way to work, a cup of yogurt and two pieces of whole grain toast at 10, a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato at 12, grapes and orange slices at 2, carrot sticks and a glass of milk at 4, and a big kale salad with a side of quinoa for dinner. Eat soy nuts between any of these “meals” if you really can’t fight off the munchies!

Follow your body’s cues as your baby weans. As your baby weans, you’ll be burning fewer calories. This means that your body will probably try to tell you that it is less hungry. This is a good thing! You should listen to your body and ease up on your calorie intake. It is also an indication that you’re ready to start dieting and exercising properly, since you won’t have to worry as much about your little one any more.

Getting the Right Nutrients
Prepare yourself for some scary advice, but realize that some of it culturally based. You might find wildly different advice on what breastfeeding moms should and shouldn’t eat, and this is largely because cultural differences play a huge part. The most important thing is that you eat a nutrient-rich, varied diet. Scientifically, this is all you and your baby need.
For example, American moms are told never to eat garlic because it will make your baby refuse to drink, while moms in India are encouraged to eat garlic because it gets baby used to adult flavors and contains lots of great nutrients.

Certainly, if one particular type of food seems to make your baby turn away from the breast for too long or gives the stomach problems, stop eating that food. But don’t let your mom-friends scare you away from half the food at the grocery store. Babies will often get used to strong or unusual tastes over time, so don’t worry if they refuse for a day or so.

Get lots of calcium. The one thing that biology says you will need is more calcium.[10] You’re making milk, after all. If you don’t get enough calcium for you and your baby, then your body will start breaking down any calcium it can find. This means calcium-low moms end up with depleted, weaker bones, which is not what you want. Take a supplement and try to fit more calcium-rich foods into your diet.
The healthiest sources of calcium actually aren’t milk or dairy products, which are high in unhealthy fats. Instead, good sources of calcium for nursing moms include white beans, kale, and bok choy.

1000-1300 mg of calcium a day is recommended for breastfeeding moms.

Be careful about the types of fat you consume. It’s a fact that the type of fat that you get in your diet also ends up in your breast milk.[11][12] While it’s not the biggest concern, it certainly won’t hurt to make sure baby gets the healthiest fats and cholesterol possible. This means that you’ll want to eat foods rich in healthy fats, like sardines, avocado, olive oil, and soy.
Bad sources of fats include butter, cheese, pork, and most of the usual “junk foods” (chips, cookies, etc).

Drink lots of water. Getting enough water is important no matter what, but do keep in mind that you’re making several ounces of extra fluid every day now! That means you’re probably going to need more water than you’re already taking in. Make sure you get enough to help keep your milk flowing and keep your body healthy as well.
It is recommended that breastfeeding moms get 16 cups of fluid a day, though your body may need more or need less. [13]
Now, how much is “enough” really depends on your body. There’s no good number to point to. Your best bet is to drink until your urine is pale, as this is usually an indicator of healthy fluid intake.

You can technically get water by drinking juices, milk, soda, and other fluids, but those are high in empty calories like sugar (defeating the purpose of your goal to lose weight).

Find other sources of nutrients if you have dietary restrictions. If you have dietary restrictions (vegan/vegetarian, celiac disease, etc), the you’ll need to supplement your diet to make sure that you and your baby get the right amount of nutrients. The big concern for vegans (and to a lesser extend, vegetarians) is getting enough B12, calcium, and zinc. Those with celiac disease will need to make sure to compensate for nutrients normally lacking in their diet.
Fortified breakfast cereals are actually your best bet for B12.

Calcium is also easy to source from vegetables. Collard greens, turnips, and garlic are good sources.

Talk to a dietician if you have other food restrictions, to determine what nutrients you might be low in and what safe alternatives are so that you can stay healthy.

Maximize nutrition content. Maximizing the nutritional content of the food you do eat will allow you to keep your baby and body healthy while minimizing your own hunger and developing habits that will make shedding pounds later a breeze. To get the most bang out of your foods, try:
Kiwis (more Vitamin C than oranges!), bananas, and pomegranates

Kale, broccoli, spinach, brussels sprouts, and shiitake mushrooms

Wild-caught Alaskan salmon, sardines, anchovies, white-meat poultry, white beans, and soy.

Quinoa, Barley, Oatmeal, and brown rice[14]

Get professional help with dieting while you breastfeed. If you really want to take your diet and health seriously while you breastfeed, it would be a good idea to talk to a professional, who can tailor their advice to your own personal health profile and dietary needs. There are a couple of different professionals that can all give you great advice:
Lactation consultant



Finding Ways to Get Active
Find little ways to get more active. There are lots of small ways you can get active throughout your day. These small activities can burn calories and help you get on your way to shedding those pregnancy pounds. Adding more activity into your daily schedule can also help you start shedding those pounds. Try to find time in between your normal activities to fit in at least 10 minutes of exercise. That’s all it takes! Ten minutes, three times a day, and you can make sure you’re maintaining a healthy weight and keeping your body in shape. You can do things like:
Squats at the stove while you wait for dinner to cook.

A jog around the parking lot at lunch.

An extra trip (or couple of trips) up and down the stairs before work.

Good examples of little ways to be more active include taking the stairs instead of the elevator, using a standing or treadmill desk, or sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair.

Do exercises that involve your baby. If you’re having trouble finding time for exercise, find a way to work your baby into your routine. Playtime can become workout time! There are specially-designed workout routines that incorporate your baby, but you can also use less structured means as well. Use a baby wrap to hold your child and then do squats, lunges, and other similar motions. This will have the added benefit of being fun and soothing for your baby.

You can also use your baby as a weight and lift them up and down to build strength in your arms. You’ll need this because they’ll be toddler-sized before you know it!

Try gentle exercises. If your body is having a hard time recovering from giving birth or if you had to have a C-section, you might want to start with gentle exercises until your muscles build up strength again. Swimming, walking, and tai chi are good examples. You can also take your baby for a walk! Put them in a carrier your chest (which has them facing you) to burn even more calories.

Talk to your doctor about what activities are and aren’t a good idea if you’ve had a C-section. Everyone will be at a different point in your healing process so specific advice is complicated.

Try efficient exercises. If you’re really low on time for exercise, make sure you’re using the most efficient, high impact exercises that you can. These will have a greater effect with a shorter amount of time invested in doing the, making them easier to fit into those three 10 minute sessions a day.
Squats, planks, and burpees are good examples.

Give your body time. The most important thing to remember is that to lose weight in a healthy way, you need to lose it gradually. Your body is going to need time anyway, in order to shrink naturally back down. Plan on maintaining your weight and building good habits and lifestyle changes while you breastfeed. When your child is weaned, you can then use those habits to lose the weight over the course of a few months or a year.
Most moms return to their pre-birth weight after about 3 months to 1 year. Some take much longer and some moms never lose the weight. [15] Remember that your weight doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is that you feel healthy and ready to take on a wonderful, active life with your new child.

Ask your mom-friends for some more practical advice and references to resources.

Be sure to always check with your health care provider prior to starting any diet program or incorporating the use of nutritional supplements.

Related wikiHows
How to Know when Expressed Breast Milk Is Spoiled

How to Eat While Breastfeeding

How to Use Different Breast Feeding Positions

How to Lose Weight While Breastfeeding

Sources and Citations
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