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Best Food Choices for Nursing Moms

author image Lynette Arceneaux
Based in Southern California, Lynette Arceneaux has worked as a writer and editor since 1995. Her works have appeared in anthologies, such as "From the Trenches" and "Black Box," in the magazine "Neo-opsis," and on numerous websites. Arceneaux, who holds a Master of Arts degree, currently focuses on the topics of health and wellness, lifestyle, family and pets.

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Best Food Choices for Nursing Moms
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Breastfeeding is one of the most nutritionally demanding times in a woman's life, particularly during the first three months of lactation, says registered dietitian Karlene Karst, a health specialist in nutrition and author of "The Metabolic Syndrome Program." "More than ever," Karst said, "she needs a rich supply of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats" and more. But exactly what foods provide the nutrients her body -- and her growing baby -- needs? We spoke with several registered dietitians about the best food choices for nursing moms and they shared their recommendations.

Hearty Oatmeal
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"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, she says, adding, "plus it's been shown to help stabilize blood sugar, reduce the risk of heart disease and it's full of antioxidants" to benefit both mother and child.

Related: Alicia Simpson, M.S., R.D., founder of Pea Pod Nutrition and Lactation Support

Foods Rich in Calcium
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"A source of calcium is critical," says registered dietitian Bridget Swinney, "either from dairy, fortified soy or veggies." Swinney warns that when a nursing mother's calcium needs are not met, the needed calcium is leeched from her bones. And while this is certainly 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, Swinney explained, and "we definitely don't want to have that resurfacing in breast milk." Research has shown, though, that increased calcium intake can be helpful in reducing lead in breast milk.

Related: American Journal of Epidemiology: Influence of Maternal Bone Lead Burden and Calcium Intake on Levels of Lead in Breast Milk Over the Course of Lactation

Lentils and Other Beans
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Milk is synthesized from blood, as odd as that might sound, 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," Simpson said, "but they're also a rich source of iron, making them the ideal food for keeping up a healthy milk supply and a healthy mom." Registered dietitian Bridget Swinney, author of the books "Eating Expectantly," "Baby Bites" and "Healthy Food for Healthy Kids," 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."

Related: Bridget Swinney, M.S., R.D., author of "Eating Expectantly," "Baby Bites" and "Healthy Food for Healthy Kids"

The Avocado's Healthy Fats
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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," Swinney said. 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."

Nuts and Seeds: Not So Squirrelly
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"The brain is in its most rapid state of growth during the first two years of life," says registered dietitian Alicia Simpson. Therefore, 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 said. For those moms who are trying to avoid nuts, registered dietitian Bridget Swinney suggested sunflower seeds "because they're not considered tree or ground nuts -- and they're great on salads, as a snack or pureed into a spread." Sunflower seeds also contain the most vitamin E of any nut, she adds.

Salmon or Barramundi: Key Catches
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While registered dietitian Bridget Swinney likes sunflower seeds and walnuts for their short-chain omega-3 fatty acids, she noted that moms also need a source of preformed, or 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 added. Karlene Karst, registered dietitian and author, 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.

Related: Karlene Karst, R.D., author of "The Metabolic Syndrome Program" and "Belly Fat Breakthrough"

Kiwis and Berries: Juicy Goodness
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"Kiwis, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries are full of vitamin C, which breastfeeding moms need," said registered dietitian Bridget Swinney. The body is unable to produce or store the vitamin, so "it's important to include plenty of vitamin C-containing food in your daily diet." Furthermore, these fruits are full of fiber, which can help "keep things moving," Swinney said. "And they're great to throw in a smoothie for a one-handed breakfast while nursing." In addition to all these benefits, a study published in the "European Journal of Clinical Nutrition" suggests that vitamin C in breast milk may reduce the risk of developing childhood allergies.

Related: European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Vitamin C in Breast Milk May Reduce the Risk of Atopy in the Infant

Those Green Leafy Vegetables
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Rich in vitamins A, C and K, calcium, iron, protein, fiber and antioxidants, "green leafy vegetables are like nature's multivitamin," said 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," she add, "it's the best source of lutein, an antioxidant stored in the retina of the newborn which protects it from blue light damage and oxidative stress."

Beneficial Brown Rice
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Registered dietitian Alicia Simpson recommends whole-grain rice, or brown rice, as an outstanding healthy and nutritious diet 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," Simpson says.

Marvelous Mushrooms
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Eating calcium-rich foods will hardly benefit a nursing mom and her child if she doesn't also ensure an adequate intake of vitamin D, a prerequisite for the body to absorb the calcium it receives. "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 thought, however, 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.

Related: Pediatric Clinics of North America: Nutritional Management of the Breastfeeding Dyad

Iodized Salt Is Ideal
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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 said, 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," Swinney says.

Related: Clinical Endocrinology: Breastfeeding and Maternal and Infant Iodine Nutrition

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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," says registered dietitian Bridget Swinney, "like choline, a B vitamin important for the development of the memory center of the infant brain."

Related: The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry: Choline Status in Newborns, Infants, Children, Breast-Feeding Women, Breast-Fed Infants and Human Breast Milk

Quinoa: It's Complete
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"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 research has shown that quinoa also contains a modest amount of omega-3 fatty acids, she says, giving nursing mothers another good reason to eat it.

Related: Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture: Nutrition Facts and Functional Potential of Quinoa (Chenopodium Quinoa Willd.), an Ancient Andean Grain: A Review

Sprouted Grain Bread
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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," Karst says. And that's not the only reason sprouted grain is an excellent choice for nursing mothers. In a 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.

Related: European Journal of Nutrition: Pre-Germinated Brown Rice Could Enhance Maternal Mental Health and Immunity During Lactation

Nutritious Nutritional Yeast
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Nutritional yeast is something registered dietitian Alicia Simpson highly recommends to breastfeeding mothers. A favorite among vegans for its cheeselike flavor, nutritional yeast is a natural source of B vitamins -- including B-12 -- as well as protein. "Just 2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast provides 8 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 Are Your Thoughts?
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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.

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