Once I delivered my second daughter I started to do research how to eat healthy while breastfeeding and still effectively lose weight after pregnancy. My main goal was to establish healthy diet safe for me and the baby.
Healthy Lifestyle, Not Just a Diet
I didn’t want just losing weight diet which would be too much restricting, pushing me to termination sooner or later. I wanted to find my way of healthy lifestyle which would be possible to keep forever.
I based our family meal plan on this healthy diet so our kids will learn to eat properly.
I decided to breastfeed because it is enormously beneficial for my baby’s immunity as well as for my weight loss effort.
Breastfeeding mom’s body burns several hundreds of calories per day by breastfeeding alone (up to 500 calories depending on frequency and amount in one feeding).
Daily Calorie Intake
As a breastfeeding mom I burn more calories so I also have to receive more than regular person. Insufficient daily calorie intake might decrease the milk supply.
This was the main reason why I decided not to stick strictly with losing weight diet plan from Focus T25. I increased my daily calorie intake from suggested 1,600 to the minimum of 2,000 calories.
Experts say that breastfeeding mom should receive at least 1,800 calories but most of them must have at least 2,000 – 2,500 calories per day. The total number of calories depends on your weight, height, age, activity and if you are breastfeeding.
There are a lot of calculators on the internet (for example at US Department of Agriculture) and they give you the amount of calories to maintain your weight.
To obtain the final number for losing my baby weight I deducted approximately 25 percent from calculated total daily calorie intake. Experts don’t recommend to deduct more than 25 percent because it might lead to unhealthy weight loss.
Too low calorie intake can cause the decrease of the milk supply, malnutrition and losing muscles instead of fat. We don’t want to lose muscles because they help to burn the fat.
In any case, you should consult it with your doctor before you start any diet!
Well Balanced Diet
The basis of healthy losing weight diet for breastfeeding mom is NOT counting the total number of calories, but the well balanced diet, full of versatile and nutritious ingredients.
Many diets restrict some groups of food (for example low carbohydrate diet) but these are not appropriate for breastfeeding moms. Unbalanced diet might affect the quality of the milk supply.
Breastfeeding mom should have well balanced diverse diet with the sufficient amount of:
Unhealthy food often contains too much fat, carbohydrates and not enough protein, fiber etc.
The key of healthy well balanced diet is to reach appropriate ratio of these nutrients and start to eat their healthier variants (for example lean meat instead of fat meat, unsaturated fats instead of trans fats etc.).
Proteins are extremely important for building your muscles, skin, organs, hormones, enzymes etc.
They have also significant benefit for losing your baby weight – they keep you full and boost your metabolism too. This can help to reduce the total calorie intake.
There are many studies on how much protein should we receive and they differ a lot. It also depends on several factors, for example how active you are. Bodybuilders and athletes need much more protein than inactive people.
I found the recommendation that optimal amount of protein for me as an active mom losing weight might be 25-30 percent of daily calorie intake. Or alternatively 1 gram per 1 pound of lean mass weight or target weight.
I want to be somewhere in the middle of this range – 28 % from 2,000 is 560 calories which is 140 grams of protein (1 gram of protein is 4 calories).
According to the second rule my target weight is 140-150 pounds so 140 grams of protein would be appropriate.
Referring to the grams of protein I mean the amount shown on food’s nutrition information label which is different from the real weight of food rich in protein. For example 4 ounces (113 grams) of chicken breast has only 26 grams of protein.
Sources of protein:
- fish – usually low in fat (tilapia, light tuna), or contains “healthy fat” (salmon has omega-3 fatty acids which help newborn to develop brain, eyes and nervous system)
- lean meat – white meat (poultry, pork tenderloin) or lean beef rather than dark meat (more fat), cooked without skin (contains fat)
- egg whites – high amount of protein, no fat and very little carbs; reduce eating yolks (very high cholesterol and high in fat)
- dairy products (low fat) – greek yogurt, cottage cheese, milk; contains also calcium and vitamin D (both important for strength of bones and teeth)
- beans – low in fat, high in fiber which keeps you full
Although soy is sometimes recommended as a good source of protein I found that it might be a bad idea to eat it, especially when pregnant or breastfeeding.
Soy (including fermented products) contains isoflavones which affect estrogen receptors in the woman’s body. This may increase the risk of breast cancer. Some studies also show other negative effects on babies – girls might go to the puberty in earlier age and might experience menstrual alterations (longer and more painful period etc.).
When to Eat Protein
It is important to eat breakfast rich in protein because it will keep you full longer and reduce cravings later.
I always eat a protein snack right after my T25 workout because it helps to recover my muscles and supports their growth.
My meal plan includes more protein in the second half of the day while reducing carbs. Carbohydrates are energy source burned as a fuel when my body is active during the day. But later in the afternoon or evening there is less activity and thus my body needs less carbs. The rest of the carbohydrates which weren’t burned are then stored in my body’s fat. That’s something I want to avoid.
As I already mentioned, carbohydrates are important basic nutrient – source of energy for your body.
Same as with the proteins there exist several expert opinions on how many carbohydrates should we eat.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends to receive 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories.
I want to lose the baby weight and don’t want to receive too many carbs. The most appropriate amount of carbohydrates seems to be 41 percent of my daily calories intake. Based on my observation, I feel that this is enough for me to avoid fatigue from insufficient amount of carbs. It means I should get 820 calories (41 % from 2,000), i.e. 205 grams of carbohydrates (1 gram of carbs is 4 calories).
More important than counting calories and grams of carbs is choosing healthier type of carbohydrates – rich in fiber (helps to keep you full), whole grains instead of refined and processed grains. Refining removes important parts of the grains which are rich in fiber and other nutrients (selenium, potassium and magnesium).
Generally choose the food with lower glycemic index which doesn’t raise your blood sugar levels too much – this helps to avoid cravings and to lose your baby weight easier.
Try to avoid added sugars.
Sources of healthy carbohydrates:
- whole grains – bread made from whole wheat, whole rye or other whole grain, brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, rye, barley, farro, kamut, maize, millet, buckwheat, whole wheat pastas, cereal (choose the one which has at least 4 grams of fiber and not more than 8 grams of sugar per serving, for example old fashioned oats, NOT instant oatmeal)
- legumes – great nutritious benefits: source of fiber, protein, potassium, magnesium, iron, folate, usually low in fat, no cholesterol; for example beans, lentils, peas
- fruits – eat the whole fruits (more fiber, less sugar) instead of juice (often has added sugar)
- dairy products – choose low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese without added sugar
Limit these sources of carbohydrates or avoid them:
- potatoes and corn – slightly reduce them due to the higher glycemic index
- refined and processed grains – white rice, pastas (non-whole wheat), white bread and other snacks containing refined flours (replace them by whole grains)
- French fries – avoid them
- desserts and candy – avoid them
- sodas – avoid these “empty calories” because they have low nutrition value and a lot of sugar
Some of the above unhealthy carbohydrates might negatively affect your losing weight effort and even promote diabetes and heart disease.
When to Eat Carbohydrates
I eat meals richer in carbohydrates earlier in the day to have more energy. Since my body needs fuel for activities I also eat more carbs before my T25 exercise.
I have mentioned several times that one should prefer low fat products but I didn’t mean to eliminate all the fats from the diet.
Fats are as important part of the well balanced diet as are carbs or proteins. The key is to eat the appropriate amount and more important to choose the healthier types of fat.
The overall total amount of fat should be within 20-35 percent of daily calories according to US Department of Agriculture. My goal is to hold it around 31 percent which means I receive 69 grams of fat daily (1 gram of fat is 9 calories).
The “good” fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) are usually liquid at room temperatures and might be found in:
- oils – olive oil (the best is extra virgin), canola oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, safflower oil
- peanut butter
- nuts – almonds, pecans, cashews, peanuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, walnuts
- seeds – pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds
- fatty fish – salmon, canned light tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring, trout; contains Omega-3 fatty acids (the healthiest fats)
The good fats protect the heart, lower cholesterol and generally are healthy when staying within the total limits mentioned above. The good fats can even help to control your weight.
Omega-3 fats are even more beneficial for our health, both mental and physical. They can help to treat depression, hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder. They can also stimulate memory, control fatigue, stabilize mood, reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, relieve the joint pain, promote healthy pregnancy etc.
The most potent type of omega-3 are EPA and DHA which might be found in cold water fatty fish named above. But especially pregnant or breastfeeding women and kids should be aware of the amount of mercury in the fish – avoid white or albacore tuna and large predatory ocean fish such as shark, king mackerel, swordfish or tilefish.
Another type of omega-3 fatty acid is ALA included in walnuts, flaxseed and canola oil.
Omega-3 fats might be received in supplements – make sure it contains EPA and DHA types and it is mercury-free. 1–3 grams per day of EPA and DHA is optimal amount according the American Heart Association.
The “bad” fats (saturated and trans fat) are typically solid at room temperatures.
Bad fats increase cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. Bad fats are also the ones which contribute to the weight gain.
Saturated fats (slightly better than trans fats) are found in:
- ice cream
- oils – palm oil, coconut oil
- fat meat – fat cuts of beef, pork, lamb, chicken with the skin
- high fat dairy products – whole milk, cream
American Heart Association recommends to limit saturated fats to less than 6% of daily calories intake, i.e. in my 2,000 calorie diet it is 120 calories – I shouldn’t receive more than 13 grams of saturated fat per day.
Simply choose low fat option – e.g. lean white meat instead of fat red meat, mozzarella instead of fat cheese, frozen low fat yogurt instead of ice cream etc., but be aware of higher carbs.
Better way is to choose healthier variant of good fat – for example olive oil instead of butter.
Don’t fry but rather grill.
Trans fats (the worst ones we try to avoid):
- vegetable shortening, stick margarine
- fried foods – fried chicken, chicken nuggets, French fries, breaded fish
- candy, doughnuts, cakes, cookies, muffins
- pastries, crackers, pizza, hamburger buns, chips, microwave popcorn
- fast food
Eliminate trans fats!
Avoid also food with partially hydrogenated oil! It means it has also trans fat even the Nutrition Facts on food label claims “0 grams of trans fats”. This is because food manufacturers are allowed to claim 0 grams if it has under 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
Healthy diet should contain less than 1% of calories of trans fat (in my case only 2 grams of trans fat per day).
Cholesterol isn’t bad, human body needs it. The problem is when we receive too much cholesterol. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 300 milligrams a day.
There are two types of cholesterol:
- HDL (“good cholesterol”) – keep the HDL levels higher to protect against heart disease and stroke
- LDL (“bad cholesterol”) – keep the LDL levels low to reduce the risk of cardiovascular desease
The cholesterol levels come hand in hand with received types of fat.
Good fats maintain the right levels of cholesterol – monounsaturated fats lower total and bad LDL levels and increase good HDL levels.
Bad fats make it worse – saturated fats raise total levels and trans fats raise bad LDL and lower good HDL levels.
Remember, the key of the whole weight loss effort and healthy eating is to replace the bad fats with the good ones, not eliminate all the fats from diet! Eat the most healthy Omega-3 fats every day.
Vitamins and Minerals
Breastfeeding mom can continue to take her prenatal vitamins in the first few months to make sure she has enough vitamins and minerals.
Calcium is important for our bones and helps to prevent against osteoporosis (risk of bone fractures). It also plays an important role in muscle contraction, nerve transmission and dilation of blood vessels.
Milk products and calcium fortified food (cereals etc.) are great source of calcium.
Adult should receive 1,000 milligrams per day but not more than 2,500 milligrams per day.
Deficiency of vitamin D can cause rickets in children and softening of bones and higher risk of bone fractures in adults.
Vitamin D may be received from fortified food and drinks (milk products, cereals etc.), fish (salmon, rockfish, tuna, sardine), egg yolks, exposure to sunlight etc.
According to U.S. Dietary Guidelines adults should take 600 IU (15 micrograms) daily but not more than 4,000 IU (100 micrograms) per day. Babies might not get enough vitamin D from mother’s breast milk and pediatricians recommend to give them supplements (400 IU = 10 micrograms).
Sodium is used too excessively especially in the USA. Human body needs sodium but the amount should not exceed 2,300 milligrams per day. This corresponds to 1 teaspoon of table salt.
There are several other important vitamins and minerals which our bodies need, e.g. vitamin A, C, K, potassium, iron, magnesium etc. These are more likely received in sufficient amounts when having well balanced diet. You can use USDA calculator to make sure you receive enough.
Be Aware of Contaminants
Fruits and vegetables might be often contaminated by pesticides and insecticides. You can buy organic products but these may be too expensive.
Alternatively wash your fruits and veggies properly and try to buy local products (they do not travel long distances and don’t need contaminants).
Eat What Suits to Your Baby
Your breastfed baby may react on what you eat. Sometimes you can experience that your baby becomes annoyed and irritable (cries, passes more gas etc.) after eating some kind of food. If this persists you can try to avoid such food and see if the baby feels more comfortable.
Water is the best – it contains no calories and keeps you properly hydrated and full. Since I am nursing I drink only bottled or filtered water.
According to experts breastfeeding mom should drink between half an ounce and an ounce for each pound of her weight daily. The appropriate fluid amount is affected also by climate where she lives and her activity.
I weigh currently 180 lbs, live in hot climate and doing T25 workouts (which are strenuous) so I should receive at least 4 liters of fluids (135 ounces) daily. This amount includes all received fluids, not only in drinks but also in food etc.
The appropriate amount may be calculated using USDA calculator.
Drinks containing caffeine like coffee, tea or some sodas should be limited. Make sure you don’t receive more than 300 miligrams of caffeine per day (2 to 3 cups of coffee, i.e. 16 to 24 ounces).
Do not drink “empty calories” such as sodas, alcohol and even juice. These drinks have low nutritional value but usually many calories.
Read the Food and Drink Labels
I learned to read Nutrition Facts labels on food and drinks. Not only calories or amounts of proteins, carbs and fats but generally ingredients and other things.
I try to find food containing simple ingredients (not with those long weird looking chemical names) which are minimally processed.
I especially like to see on the labels:
- All natural
- No preservatives
- No artificial flavors
- No artificial sweeteners
- No added sugar
- No high fructose syrup
- No hormones
- No genetically modified ingredients
- No antibiotics
- MSG free (no monosodium glutamate)
- Low cholesterol
- Low sodium
Number of Meals Per Day
It is highly individual how many meals will work the best for you, just try it.
I like to have 5 or 6 meals per day because it keeps my blood sugar levels low consistently.
It keeps me full all the time – I don’t feel hungry and I don’t have cravings. This makes my losing weight effort comfortable and relatively easy.
Calories, Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats
Here is a summary how I divided calories and nutrients throughout the day.
I always make sure to receive meals rich in proteins in the morning (right after waking up), evening (keep me full) and right after the workout (repair my muscles).
I have more carbohydrates in AM hours and before workout (energy booster).
Is it necessary to count calories and grams of nutrients all the time precisely? I don’t think so.
I counted only first few days to become familiar how much food and what kind I should eat. I also count when I prepare the whole new recipe.
I consider types of nutrients and choosing their healthier variants more important than just sticking with the exact numbers. For example I choose lean meat rather than dark fatty meat, whole grains instead of refined grains, or healthy fats in nuts etc.
Variety is also very important.
One more note – I try to keep quite slow but consistent weight loss, not crazy fast one. It would be unhealthy to lose much more than 2 pounds a week.
These are rules our whole family try to keep and it works great so far. I lose weight according to the plan and feel very well – this is the most important thing which makes me happy!
And what works for you? Any thoughts? I would be happy if you let me know in the comments below.
Disclaimer: consult with your doctor before you start any weight loss program!