Passing It Along
A sensible diet can help new moms provide quality breast milk and lose weight.
by Theresa Sullivan Barger
When Brooklyn, New York, mom Avigael Barnett breastfed her first child, she lost weight easily. By the time her son was 6 months old, she says, “I looked like I had just come out of high school.”
Now Barnett is nursing her 3-month-old daughter Netiyah, and the pregnancy weight hasn’t come off as easily as it did the first time around. Barnett says she is ravenous, but as the mother of three children under 5, time is short. So she grabs fruit, veggies and nuts for snacks between meals and drinks water each time she nurses. She eats oatmeal for breakfast and has dinner leftovers for lunch. Since she avoids dairy, she takes a calcium supplement, but otherwise she says she gets what she needs from a healthy diet. Barnett says she has 10 more pounds to lose.
Conflicting studies have been released about whether breastfeeding moms lose weight faster or slower than mothers who feed their infants formula. But with a growing number of women beginning their pregnancies overweight or even obese, practitioners and dieticians are fine-tuning their recommendations to breastfeeding mothers who want to shed their pregnancy weight.
Weight loss among women who are breastfeeding depends on diet, exercise and genetics. But nursing mothers can optimize their own health and that of their babies—as well as their chances for returning to their pre-pregnancy weight by the time their baby is six months—by striving for a well-balanced diet.
New research shows that if a woman is overweight or gains more than the recommended 20 pounds of pregnancy weight, she need not consume the extra 500 calories formerly recommended to women who breastfed exclusively, says Pamela Berens, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the UTHealth Medical School in Houston, Texas, and fellow at the American Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (AABM, www.bfmed.org). The medical community doesn’t have guidelines yet for calorie consumption for overweight nursing moms.
“We’re not talking about a standard population of women who are fit and don’t have extra fat stores,” says Kathleen A. Marinelli, MD, neonatologist at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford and AABM board member. “We are becoming more and more obese. A lot depends on your BMI [body mass index].”
Breastfeeding burns about 620 calories daily, so women who exercise and eat sensibly can generally reach their pre-pregnancy weight six months post-partum. Healthy weight, nursing moms should consume 1,500 calories a day, experts say.
While a well-balanced diet is ideal, nursing mothers don’t have to eat a perfect diet to nourish themselves and their babies.
“The most important thing to understand is that it’s going to be good no matter what you eat,” says Sarah Chana Silverstein, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, classical homeopath and herbalist. “If a woman has a couple of bad days of eating, it’s OK,” says Silverstein, who has practices in Los Angeles and New York City. A high-quality multivitamin can provide nutritional backup.
If necessary, nutrients are taken from the mother’s body to make milk. But breastfeeding mothers need not worry that their bones will be depleted of calcium. As long as they get calcium from food or supplements (preferably those that also include vitamins D3 and K2), studies show that breastfeeding mothers have lower rates of broken bones and osteoporosis than women who don’t breastfeed, says Marinelli, coordinator of lactation services at Connecticut Children’s and chapter breastfeeding coordinator, American Academy of Pediatrics. “The process of putting calcium back in your bones goes into overdrive and you end up with denser bones than you had before you were nursing.”
What to Avoid
Contrary to folklore, studies show that drinking beer doesn’t increase milk production, Marinelli says. Because having a beer makes you relax, and stress hormones decrease milk supply, doctors conclude that the relaxation that comes with a glass of wine or beer is what aids milk production.
“It’s OK for a breastfeeding woman to have a beer or glass of wine,” Marinelli says. “But if she’s going to drink a lot, she shouldn’t feed her baby until she’s no longer feeling the effects.”
Women need not shun spicy foods, broccoli or cows milk, experts say. But some babies have difficulty digesting dairy, so Silverstein recommends almond milk for mothers.
Scientific studies show that bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in polycarbonate plastic, stays in the body and passes to breast milk. Because dozens of studies have linked BPA to multiple health risks including diabetes, heart disease and reproduction problems, breastfeeding moms should avoid using plastic baby bottles containing BPA.
And since canned food is lined with polycarbonate plastic, mothers have to balance the benefits of eating food that comes from cans, such as tuna, with the risks of exposing their babies to this substance.
But not everyone can afford to avoid all canned food, and breastfeeding is still better than bottle feeding, Berens says. “You’ve got to be practical,” she notes. “Even if you don’t have the healthiest of diets and you don’t eat organic food, your baby is still going to benefit far more from you breastfeeding than from using formula.”