The 15 Best Foods for Nursing Moms
Breastfeeding is one of the most nutritionally demanding times in a woman's life, particularly during the first three months of lactation, says Karlene Karst, a registered dietician, health specialist and author of "The Metabolic Syndrome Program." During this time, a woman needs a rich supply of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats and more, she says. But exactly which foods provide the nutrients her body — and her growing baby — needs? Here are 15 of the best recommendations from several registered dietitians about the best food choices for nursing moms.
1. Steel-Cut Oatmeal
"Oatmeal is well-known to moderately increase milk supply, but its benefits go far beyond its milk-making abilities," says Alicia Simpson, registered dietitian and founder of Pea Pod Nutrition and Lactation Support. Oatmeal is a good source of folic acid, fiber and protein. "Plus, it's been shown to help stabilize blood sugar, reduce the risk of heart disease, and it's full of antioxidants," she says. And that benefits both mom and baby!
Read more: How to Build a Better Bowl of Oatmeal
2. Calcium-Rich Foods
"A source of calcium is critical," says Bridget Swinney, registered dietitian and author of the book "Eating Expectantly," "either from dairy, fortified soy or veggies." When a nursing mother's calcium needs are not met, the needed calcium is leeched from her bones, Swinney says. And while this is definitely not healthy for the mom, it could also be detrimental to the baby. Any lead that mom has come into contact with during her lifetime is stored in her bones. "And we definitely don't want to have that resurfacing in breast milk," she says. However, a 2005 study from the American Journal of Epidemiology found that increased calcium intake can be helpful in reducing lead in breast milk.
3. Lentils and Beans
As odd as it might sound, breast milk is synthesized from blood, says registered dietitian Alicia Simpson. And iron is essential to your body's blood production. "Beans and lentils are not only excellent sources of protein, calcium, magnesium and B vitamins, but they're also a rich source of iron," she says, "making them the ideal food for keeping up a healthy milk supply and a healthy mom." Registered dietitian Bridget Swinney also recommends lentils, saying, "Women who were anemic during pregnancy, or lost blood during delivery, will certainly benefit from eating iron-rich foods like lentils."
If you're like most people, you don't really need another reason to eat avocados besides their deliciousness, but here's one more. Registered dietitian Bridget Swinney recommends that breastfeeding moms have a good mix of healthy fats in their diets, and avocados are packed with them. "Avocados provide a great source of healthy fats, as well as vitamin C, potassium and fiber," she says. And another registered dietitian, Karlene Karst, also recommends avocados, whose healthy fats, in her opinion, "help keep the skin hydrated, lubricate the cells in the body and create healthy energy production."
Read more: 12 Yummy New Avocado Recipes
5. Nuts and Seeds
"The brain is in its most rapid state of growth during the first two years of life," says registered dietitian Alicia Simpson. So the essential fatty acid DHA, which supports brain development, is an important component in breast milk. "By eating rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids like ground flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts, moms not only ensure their milk is full of this healthy essential fat, but also that their own reserves remain high," Simpson says. If you're trying to avoid nuts, registered dietitian Bridget Swinney suggests sunflower seeds. "They're not considered tree or ground nuts, and they're great on salads, as a snack or pureed into a spread." They also contain a ton of vitamin E, she says.
Read more: 9 Healthy Nuts That May Help You Live Longer
6. Salmon or Barramundi
While registered dietitian Bridget Swinney likes sunflower seeds and walnuts for their short-chain omega-3 fatty acids, she says that moms also need a source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Cold-water fish like salmon or barramundi are excellent sources of these EFAs. "DHA has also shown promise in preventing postpartum depression," Swinney says. And registered dietitian Karlene Karst feels so strongly about the benefits of long-chain omega-3s that she developed her own brand of omega-3 fish oil called Sea-licious. "Lactation is the most important time for extra omega-3s because the baby's brain is still forming," she says.
7. Kiwis and Berries
"Kiwis, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries are full of vitamin C, which breastfeeding moms need," says registered dietitian Bridget Swinney. The body is unable to produce or store the vitamin on its own, so it's important to include plenty of vitamin C-containing food in your daily diet, she says. Plus, these fruits are full of fiber, which can help "keep things moving." "And they're great to throw in a smoothie for a one-handed breakfast while nursing." In addition to all these benefits, a 2005 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that vitamin C in breast milk may reduce a baby's risk of developing childhood allergies later on.
8. Leafy, Green Vegetables
Rich in vitamins A, C and K, calcium, iron, protein, fiber and antioxidants, green, leafy vegetables are nature's multivitamin, says registered dietitian Alicia Simpson. She recommends that nursing mothers keep their kitchens stocked with kale, collard greens, turnip greens, Swiss chard, broccoli, spinach and cabbage. Registered dietitian Bridget Swinney agrees, pointing out that just one serving of spinach provides all the vitamin A you need for a day. "Plus, it's the best source of lutein, an antioxidant stored in the retina of the newborn that protects it from blue light damage and oxidative stress."
9. Brown Rice
Registered dietitian Alicia Simpson recommends whole-grain rice, or brown rice, as a nutritious food choice for nursing mothers. "Brown rice is an excellent source of important B vitamins and minerals such as iron," she says, adding that it's also high in fiber and a good source of protein. "The combination of brown rice's favorable fiber and protein profile makes it an excellent choice for breastfeeding mothers because it helps stabilize blood sugar — and is incredibly filling as well."
Eating calcium-rich foods benefit a nursing mom and her child most if mom is getting an adequate amount of dietary vitamin D, a prerequisite for the body to absorb calcium. "Vitamin D is an essential component for healthy bones and teeth," says registered dietitian Bridget Swinney. "And mushrooms exposed to UV light are an excellent source of the vitamin." Registered dietitian Alicia Simpson also recommends mushrooms for their "natural vitamin D content, protein and favorable vitamin and mineral profile." There is some evidence, however, to suggest that nursing babies can never reach their vitamin D requirements from breast milk alone and should be given supplements. Speak with your doctor about your baby's vitamin D needs.
Read more: 9 Ways to Help Avoid Vitamin D Deficiency
11. Iodized Salt
The mineral iodine is necessary for thyroid hormone production, which is required for normal neurodevelopment. Since the level of iodine in breast milk depends on the mother's intake, nursing moms need more iodine, says registered dietitian Bridget Swinney. So moms who are using sea salt should reconsider, she says, because although sea salt will probably have more of other minerals than iodized salt, the amount of iodine in it varies. "It's really safest to used iodized salt," she says.
Eggs are the perfect protein, says registered dietitian Karlene Karst. "If you've been up all night with a crying baby or nursing in the night, you need a proper breakfast, and eggs are one of the best ways to start the day," she says. But don't throw out the yolk. "Moms who throw away the yolk are missing key nutrients, like choline, a B vitamin important for the development of the memory center of the infant brain," says registered dietitian Bridget Swinney, "
Read more: 9 Egg Breakfasts in 10 Minutes or Less
"Quinoa is another great grain to add to the diet of a breastfeeding mom," says registered dietitian Alicia Simpson. "Quinoa is the only grain that is composed of 'complete' proteins, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids the body needs in one neat little package." And a 2010 review from the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that quinoa also contains a modest amount of omega-3 fatty acids, giving nursing mothers another good reason to eat it.
14. Sprouted Grain Bread
Registered dietitian Karlene Karst urges nursing moms to add spouted grain bread to their diets. Compared to other breads, sprouted grain bread contains additional protein and fiber, she says. And that's not the only reason sprouted grain is an excellent choice for nursing mothers. In a 2007 study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, breastfeeding mothers who ate sprouted grain fared better in depression, anger, hostility and fatigue testing and had higher immunity than those who did not.
15. Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast is something registered dietitian Alicia Simpson highly recommends to breastfeeding mothers. A favorite among vegans for its cheese-like flavor, nutritional yeast is a natural source of B vitamins — including B-12 — as well as protein. "Just two tablespoons of nutritional yeast provides eight grams of protein," Simpson says. With so much nutritional bang for your buck, nutritional yeast is starting to make its way out of vegan circles and into mainstream kitchens. "Adding nutritional yeast to a mother's diet by mixing it into sauces and casseroles or sprinkling it on popcorn or over pasta is an excellent way to help give her an energizing boost of B vitamins while adding a quick source of extra protein," Simpson says.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you breastfeed your baby? If so, how much have you altered your diet? Have you made an effort to eat more nutritiously or incorporate new items into your diet to benefit your nursing child? Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts on the best food choices for nursing moms and share some of your own ideas.