Supporting Breastfeeding

La Leche League Canada

Eating for Two – What’s True?

on September 23, 2013

Breastfeeding mothers ask questions about their diet, losing weight, alcohol, and supplements. Here are some answers to these questions.

Are there any foods a mother should avoid?

No. Around the world breastfeeding mothers eat the foods of their culture. Babies taste their weaning foods in utero and in the flavours of their mother’s milks.1 Flavours stimulate the breastfed baby’s palate and introduce tastes from the family table which influences later acceptance.  However, if a mother correlates a reaction with a specific food, she may find that eliminating it can reduce fussiness in her baby. The key is to watch the baby:  if you believe a food has caused a symptom, a mother can eliminate it from her diet for a few days (up to 2 weeks). If the baby settles, but reacts again when mother reintroduces the food (a “challenge”), it is a good indication that the baby is sensitive to that food and the mother will need to avoid it. Few things a mother eats are problematic, but fussiness, rash, or changes in stool patterns can indicate that a diet change might help.  For more information:

DSC_4701Can dieting harm a mother’s milk?

Yes and no. When a mother reduces calorie intake, other nutrients may also be lower and breastmilk components will be taken from mother’s body stores. When dietary fat is low, stored fat can be mobilized to provide fat in breastmilk. However, a mother’s fat stores contain the history of all encounters with persistent organic compounds. That does not mean she should not breastfeed. So, the yes and no is that eating fewer calories is not harmful as long as the diet has a variety of nutrients for her body to keep making milk rather than depending on stores alone. When it comes to who gets the goods, the mother’s body gives preference to the baby. A mother should not lose more than 500 grams (~1 lb) per week, and she should eat a variety of foods, delaying dieting until after her baby is at least 6 weeks old and she has recovered from labour and delivery.   Any mother using herbal weight loss products should check the ingredient list.  Substances such as guarana, bitter orange (citrus aurantium), ma huang (ephedra), yerba mate (contains caffeine) and cascara or senna (laxatives) can be potentially harmful.2

Can breastfeeding mothers go on a carbohydrate free diet?

Low carb diets purport to reduce cravings through higher intake of protein and fat. There is no research that ketone bodies appear in the mother’s milk nor that a ketotic state is safe during breastfeeding. Reducing but not removing carbohydrates would not be harmful, assuming the dieter monitored long term intake of micronutrients such as thiamine, folic acid, vitamin C, and iron. 3,4 The Canadian College of Family Physicians of Canada do not recommend a no carb or extremely low carb diet, but rather the Mediterranean diet or DASH diet for better health outcomes.5

Can mothers have a glass of wine or beer while breastfeeding?

Yes, doing it sensibly and occasionally. Alcohol passes freely into breastmilk, but passes just as freely back into the circulation for removal. Blood alcohol and milk alcohol levels decrease in parallel. Pumping and dumping does not make a difference.  These tips minimize blood and milk alcohol levels: have a snack with protein, fat and carbohydrate (less alcohol is absorbed with food in the stomach); drink low alcohol beverages; alternate alcoholic drink with sips of water. This nomogram from Motherisk shows how long it takes for alcohol to leave the body and thus the milk. Mothers who do not want to expose their babies to any alcohol can pump milk ahead for feedings after alcohol intake.

Can certain foods increase my milk supply?

Many cultures believe that certain foods help mothers produce more milk. Studies on animals, men and non-lactating women show that drinking beer increases prolactin. It is believed that this is from a component of the barley, salsolinol. “It is not yet known whether beer consumption has similar effects on the lactating mother and perhaps, more importantly whether it indeed enhances milk intake.”6   Foods such as oats, barley, fish (source of Omega-3 fats), green leafy vegetables (source of carotenoids), and many of the pleasant tasting culinary spices such as garlic, fennel, anise, caraway, cumin, coriander, dill, and fenugreek are a few that are widely used in some cultures as traditional galactogogues.7,8  Sage and peppermint, when taken therapeutically in concentrated forms such as tinctures, may lower milk supply.8 When used as a culinary addition, they do not appear to be a problem. The bottom line for dietary advice on making milk is to eat sensibly and follow Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide.



Is a vegetarian or vegan diet safe when breastfeeding?

“Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life-cycle including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.”9 Protein intake for a breastfeeding mother as recommended by Eating Well With Canada’s Food Guide suggests two or three extra food guide servings daily for breastfeeding women. This table shows some examples of meat alternatives. Intake of Vitamin B12, a vitamin that is difficult to obtain with a vegan diet, is recommended to be 2.8 mcg/day. This is important as adequate intake by the breastfeeding mother ensures that her breastmilk has an adequate amount of Vitamin B12 for her baby. Cookbooks for using the large variety of legumes and grains and other meat alternatives available for vegan or vegetarian diets can be useful for mothers.10, 11

How many extra calories do I need to eat to breastfeed my baby?

Experts seem divided on this question. To quote The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding  (2010, page 124), “Eating more won’t make more milk, eating less won’t make less milk.” Health Canada recommends breastfeeding mothers may need to eat 350-400 extra calories every day and their diet should particularly include sources of Vitamins A and C, and zinc.12   The American Dietetic Association states that breastfeeding mothers do not require extra calories.13 Some of the weight gained during pregnancy is stored by the mother’s body in anticipation of the calorie requirements of lactation.14   La Leche League International has recently published a new book, Feed Yourself, Feed Your Family, which you may find useful for answering nutrition questions.15   La Leche League Canada (LLLC) Leaders provide information on nutrition at the Series Meeting #4 “Nutrition and Weaning.”  LLLC meetings can be viewed as a buffet of ideas. Each mother is invited to select those that appeal and apply to her and her family. Encouraging families to attend these meetings gives them the opportunity to hear about La Leche League Canada’s philosophy on eating  “Good nutrition means eating a well-balanced and varied diet of foods in as close to their natural state as possible.”

by Jen Peddlesden, Area Professional Liaison Leader for LLLC-AB/NWT



If you need more information or have a breastfeeding problem or concern, you are strongly encouraged to talk directly to a La Leche League Leader.  In Canada, Leaders can be located by clicking  or  Internationally



3 responses to “Eating for Two – What’s True?

  1. I am curious to know about the amount of calories burnt when nursing. I have been losing a lot of weight and I am afraid to gain it all back once I stopped nursing. Could you tell me more about that? My daughter is 7 months! Thank you!

    • Congratulations for continuing to breastfeed your baby!
      500 calories per day of extra food are required during lactation, approximately equal to a peanut butter sandwich and glass of milk. It is important to recognize that your calorie requirements decrease as milk production slows during weaning. Weight gain/loss is determined the same during lactation, weaning and everyday: calorie intake minus calories used. If you use more calories than you take in, you lose; if you take in more calories than you burn, you gain.
      Thanks for visiting Supporting Breastfeeding!

  2. […] You do not need to eat any special foods or be concerned if you don’t eat a balanced diet every day. Nature ensures that the baby gets the right amount of nutrients automatically by using vitamins stored in your body as needed. It’s important for all women to eat healthy food for themselves and for their babies.  Read more about it here. […]

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