When you're breastfeeding, your milk is the primary source of nutrition for your baby. Sometimes, this can be a nerve-wracking experience as you try to figure out which foods you can eat and whether it's safe to have things like protein powder while nursing.
The good news is that the stricter guidelines and restrictions during pregnancy don't apply when you're breastfeeding, and your body has a way of making sure that the milk you produce is nutritionally balanced for your baby.
That being said, there are some protein supplements that are higher in quality and more easily absorbed by your body. Of course, if you want to include protein powder while breastfeeding, run it by your doctor first, just to be sure.
The Importance of Protein
When you're breastfeeding, your body uses the nutrients from the food you eat to create breast milk for your baby. Because of this, it's not only essential that you get enough protein, vitamins and minerals to supply your growing baby with what he or she needs to develop properly, but also important that you're eating enough to protect your own body.
While nursing, you need an extra 300 to 500 calories per day and around 71 grams of protein, according to the Nemours Foundation's KidsHealth website. The extra calories and protein help with proper growth and development of your baby, but they also prevent the nursing mother from losing excess lean muscle mass. Even without their restricting calorie intake, breastfeeding moms typically lose 1 to 4 pounds per week, since extra calories and the energy stored in body fat is going to the baby.
Getting enough protein can ensure that you have access to the amino acids needed to provide your baby with the proper nutrition, so your body doesn't try to take the amino acids from your own muscles, instead.
Best Protein Powder While Nursing
When it comes to protein powders, there doesn't seem to be one holy grail for nursing mothers. One report that was published in Advances in Neonatal Care in August 2014 compared different types of protein and their effect on the health status of pre-term infants (who have even higher protein needs than babies who were carried to term).
Researchers from the study found that there's no significant advantage of one type of protein over another, as long as you're getting the amount you need. However, researchers also noted that there haven't been a lot of studies done on this, specifically, so there may not be enough evidence for a definitive statement.
Protein supplements that come from animal sources, like whey, casein and egg do, however, contain all of the essential amino acids that your body needs to stay healthy. Because of this, they're classified as complete proteins. On the other hand, protein supplements from plant sources, like hemp and pea, are often lacking in one or more of those essential amino acids, so they're called incomplete proteins.
If you want to make sure you're meeting your needs for amino acids, animal-based protein powders may be your best choice. The Food and Drug Administration does note, though, that although soy is a plant protein, it's also a complete protein, so this could be an exception to the rule.
Animal proteins also tend to be more easily digested and absorbed, so your body can actually use all of the protein you're consuming. If you want to up the nutritional value of the protein powder you're using, you can make whey protein shakes while breastfeeding that also include other nutrient-dense foods, like frozen spinach, a handful of berries and a slice or two of avocado for some healthy fats.
Meeting Your Needs Through Food
Although protein supplements can help you meet your protein needs, it's usually better to get the protein you need from protein-rich, nutrient-dense foods instead. Protein powders typically contain isolated protein, which doesn't contain any of the other macronutrients (carbohydrates or fat) or significant amounts of vitamins and minerals.
On the other hand, healthy foods that are high in protein also contain essential vitamins and minerals that are important during breastfeeding, like iron and calcium.
The PennState Extension notes that a glass of milk is just as convenient (or maybe even more convenient) than protein powder, and it contains 8 grams of highly-digestible protein, as well as significant amounts of calcium and vitamin D. While you can use protein powder for an extra dose of protein if you don't think you're getting enough, make sure to include a variety of protein-rich foods in your diet too. Examples include:
- Milk and yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Beans and lentils
Getting some of your protein from fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel, may have an even greater benefit because these types of fish are also high in docosahexaenoic acid (or DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that's particularly important for your growing baby's brain and eyes. According to a report published in Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids in April 2015, the amount of DHA in a mother's breast milk is directly related to her dietary intake.
A Note About Allergies
The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia notes that in some cases — although rare — a breastfeeding baby can develop an allergy to the food or protein supplements that the mother is eating. The most common that could come from protein powders are allergies to dairy (like whey or casein protein), soy and eggs. An allergy typically shows up as green or blood-containing stools that are also full of mucus.
If you suspect that your baby may have an allergy to your protein powder while nursing, you can remove the supplement from your diet and see if the symptoms improve. But keep in mind that it can take from four to six weeks to see an improvement. Of course, it's a good idea to check with your doctor or a qualified nutritionist as well.
Although most early allergies don't cause any long-term problems, it's better to be safe and make sure your health care team knows what's going on so they can monitor the baby's development.
- Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: "Diet for Breastfeeding Mothers"
- Advances in Neonatal Care: "Considerations in Meeting Protein Needs of the Human Milk–Fed Preterm Infant"
- UCSF Health: "Nutrition Tips for Breastfeeding Mothers"
- KidsHealth From Nemours: "Pregnant or Breastfeeding? Nutrients You Need"
- American Pregnancy Association: "Nutrition During Breastfeeding"
- PennState Extension: "Protein and Protein Supplements"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Protein"
- Amino Acids: "Protein Content and Amino Acid Composition of Commercially Available Plant-Based Protein Isolates"
- Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids: "Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation in Lactating Women Increases Breast Milk and Plasma Docosahexaenoic Acid Concentrations and Alters Infant Omega 6:3 Fatty Acid Ratio"