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September 17, 2019
By Melissa Mitri, MS RD
There is so much attention put on what to eat during pregnancy, but often the postpartum period is neglected. What you eat postpartum can help support your recovery and provide you with the energy that you need to take care of your baby. Especially if you are breastfeeding, there are certain foods that will help you produce more nutritious milk, providing your little one with the most important nutrients they need for their proper development. Having a healthy, nourishing diet postpartum can also help you to lose the baby weight and can reduce your risk of postpartum depression and anxiety.
So what exactly should you be eating? Here we outline the most important nutrients and where you can find them in your diet. It’s always preferred to get your nutrients from your food to get the most health benefit, but if that’s not possible then a supplement is great assurance. If you are breastfeeding, your body burns about 500 extra calories a day, but you don’t always need to consume all 500 extra calories. It’s always wise to work with a nutrition professional to make sure you’re giving your healing body exactly what it needs.
Iron needs remain high after pregnancy. You continue to need extra iron to replenish iron you lost during childbirth, whether vaginal or C-section, as well as to give you energy which is so important when caring for a newborn! Your iron stores are also really important to supply to your growing baby if you’re breastfeeding for their proper development and thyroid function.
Best iron sources – red meat, liver, clams, oysters, green leafy veggies. Animal sources are preferred as they contain what’s called “heme” iron which is more readily absorbed in our bodies. The “non-heme” iron from plant sources is not absorbed very efficiently and it takes a very large amount of these foods to meet your iron needs. If you’re a vegetarian, it’s recommended to take an iron supplement.
Women consuming a diet limited in animal foods are at risk for B12 deficiency and therefore low levels in their breast milk. This is because B12 is really only found in adequate amounts in animal foods.
Babies with inadequate B12 levels are often more irritable, have an increased risk for developmental delays and poor brain growth. Symptoms of deficiency usually appear around 4-7 months and can be irreversible – so it’s important if you are vegetarian or especially if you follow a vegan diet to take a B12 supplement.
Best B12 sources – clams, tuna, liver, beef, salmon, lesser amounts in fortified dairy and cereals
Omega-3 essential fatty acids like DHA are called essential because our body does not make enough of them, therefore they are essential in our diet. Infants of mothers with higher DHA levels in their breast milk have better brain and visual development. Even if you’re not breastfeeding, there has been research on the role of DHA in improving mental focus, reducing inflammation and the risk of postpartum depression.
Best DHA sources – wild sockeye salmon, tuna, sardines, and fortified grass-fed beef and eggs. Plant-based foods like flax and chia seed will not provide you with DHA – they provide another type of omega-3 called EPA, which is not absorbed well in our body. Most moms should continue to take a DHA supplement after pregnancy because many do not get enough in their diet.
A lot of people may not have heard of choline. Choline is a type of fat that is crucial for brain development. The needs for this nutrient increase during pregnancy and are the highest in breastfeeding moms (minimum 550mg/day). Choline is very important for infant memory and brain development.
Best choline sources – eggs (pasture raised, organic whenever possible) and organ meats like liver. There have also been studies of women who take sunflower lecithin, a supplement that is rich in choline, who had a reduced risk for clogged ducts – which is very painful and can affect the ability to breastfeed. It may be possible this benefit is due to the choline present in them.
Related: How to get rid of plugged milk ducts and prevent them from happening
These 2 particular amino acids, or protein building blocks, are crucial for healing and recovery after childbirth. They help return your uterus back to its original size and are involved in the healing of your surgical wound particularly if you had a C-section, speeding up the healing of any tears. They also help your belly skin to regain elasticity – aka helping to decrease stretch marks.
Best gelatin or collagen sources – Bone broth, slow cooked meat and stews, chicken skin or pork rinds. If you don’t eat any of these foods, you can get these proteins from a powder that you can add to your beverages, soups, or smoothies.
Iodine needs are the highest after pregnancy than any other time. Due to hormonal shifts, it is very common to have thyroid issues after baby, and iodine deficiency increases this risk. When you have thyroid issues it may be more difficult to lose your weight postpartum. Iodine is key for your thyroid, brain, and metabolic health.
Best iodine sources – seafood, seaweed, dairy, and eggs. You can also get iodine from iodized salt.
Related: Postpartum Thyroiditis
So as you can see there is a trend in the types of foods to eat postpartum. Don’t get overwhelmed by all the nutrient talk – fill your diet with plenty of nutritious foods like liver, fatty fish, eggs, greek yogurt, seafood, and leafy veggies. If you have these foods the majority of the time and include the occasional sweet treat as well if you want it, then you’re doing the very best you can for yourself and your baby and you will be on the road to a quicker recovery!
In addition to your food choices, it’s always a good insurance policy to continue to take a prenatal multivitamin and a DHA supplement with at least 300mg of DHA for at least 6 months postpartum. If your prenatal does not contain 100% of the RDA for these nutrients discussed above, ask your healthcare provider or Dietitian if you need additional supplements based on your typical diet.
The postpartum period can be a wonderful but also very demanding time. Filling yourself with foods that will energize you will help you to focus on caring for your little one. Stock your pantry with these healing foods to make sure you are also taking care of you.
Melissa Mitri, MS RD
Melissa is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist who helps moms lose weight and feel confident in their own skin, without restrictive diets. She is the owner of Melissa Mitri Nutrition, a nutrition counseling practice where she works with her clients on how to become more in tune with their bodies through mindful eating, so they truly enjoy their food and are less likely to overeat.
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