How much should you eat while breastfeeding?

AllisonMS, RDN, CDN

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists recommends that exclusively breastfeeding women who were at a healthy pre-pregnancy weight consume 450-500 calories per day on top of their pre-pregnancy calorie needs. This means you may need to eat about as many calories as you did during your third trimester of pregnancy.

Exclusively breastfeeding women who were underweight at conception will need to eat even more than that extra 450-500 calories, and those who were overweight or obese at conception do not need additional calories while exclusively breastfeeding and can, in fact, even modestly restrict their caloric intake as part of a gradual weight loss plan. Remember that calorie needs are extremely individualized and calorie requirements are influenced by more than just pre-pregnancy weight – your activity level, fat stores, breastfeeding frequency, and the number of babies you are nursing all factor in to the calculation of what’s right for you. If you have questions about your individual needs you can speak with a Happy Family Coach.

Worried that keeping up your caloric intake will set back your baby weight loss goals? We hear you. But even with the additional recommended calories based on your pre-pregnancy weight plus gradually returning to your pre-pregnancy activity levels, you’ll likely gradually lose your pregnancy weight without additional attention.

The operative word is here “gradual.” Many women are in a hurry to lose the weight, but now is not the time for cutting calories drastically. On a very low calorie diet – less than 1500 calories per day (we recommend most nursing Moms do not go below 1800 calories) your milk supply will suffer, not to mention that it will be difficult to consume all of the nutrients your body needs while nursing. Vitamins B6, B12, A and D as well as folate, iron, iodine, choline, zinc, calcium and folate are especially important during breastfeeding (see Enriching your diet while breastfeeding to learn about top food sources).

Remember – your body continues to prioritize the baby during breastfeeding so nutrient deficiencies will affect you, mama! Exercise is a great way to burn some extra calories and so is nursing exclusively for 6 months or more because it burns calories and mobilizes fat stores accumulated during pregnancy.

When your nursing schedule decreases in frequency (typically when your baby begins solids, recommended at around 6 months of age), the energy demand for milk production will decrease and, accordingly, so will your calorie needs. Until then, it’s important to maintain your healthy eating habits. Your food choices can help optimize the nutrition composition of your milk,. As a general rule of thumb, eat when you’re hungry (and at regular intervals), prioritize healthy choices, and stop when you’re full.

What to Do

Eat and drink regularly throughout the day

Eating at regular intervals ensures you’re eating enough calories and prevents you from becoming too hungry, which can lead to overeating. Keep your home stocked with easy to grab meals and snacks, especially things you can eat with one hand (you may find your other hand constantly occupied with your little one). Think whole pieces of fruit, sliced veggies with hummus or guacamole, nut butter on whole grain toast or crackers, nut and dried fruit trail mix, hard boiled eggs, sliced cheese or string cheese.

Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, low fat dairy or dairy alternatives, low mercury fish and lean meats

Now is not the time for strict dieting since your body still has increased needs. Instead, focus on nutrient dense foods that will support breastfeeding. And remember, exclusive breastfeeding tends to lead to more steady postpartum weight loss.

Add approximately 450-500 calories to your daily diet in a healthy way

450-500 extra calories may be more or less than what your body needs, but always tune into your hunger and fullness cues to eat the right amount for you. Here are some snack ideas to meet this calorie goal:

  • ½ cup trail mix with 1 cup of unsweetened yogurt
  • 1 sweet potato with ½ cup black beans, ¼ avocado and salsa and a side of 1-2 cups salad greens with 2 tablespoons dressing
  • 1 cup roasted vegetable (try carrots, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash or a combination!), topped with 2 tablespoons pine nuts, 3 ounces salmon and 1/3 cup whole grain rice or quinoa
  • A peanut butter (or other nut butter) and banana sandwich made with 1 banana, 2 tablespoons nut butter and 2 slices 100% whole grain bread
  • 1 ounce almonds, a cup of skim milk, sliced raw vegetables with ¼ cup hummus and a small piece of fruit
  • Turkey sandwich with 2 ounces turkey from a roasted turkey or turkey breast ,1 ounce cheese and two slices of 100% whole grain bread

Quickly estimate calories to keep your total intake in check, but don’t drive yourself crazy

  • Here is a quick calorie cheat sheet:
  • One ounce protein (poultry, meat, fish) = 35-75 calories depending on fat content
  • One cup fat-free or low-fat dairy or dairy alternative = 90 calories
  • One cup cooked vegetables = 50 calories
  • One cup raw vegetables = 25 calories
  • One small piece of fruit or 1 cup berries or melon = 60 calories
  • One slice of bread, 1/3 cup rice or beans, ½ cup pasta = 80 calories

Take a postnatal vitamin

Consider taking a pre- or postnatal vitamin or breastfeeding supplement while nursing to help ensure you are meeting your daily nutritional requirements for vitamins, minerals and micronutrients.

Speak to your healthcare provider with any concerns

If you have any concerns about your weight or diet while you’re nursing, speak to your healthcare provider. Keep in mind that our calorie recommendations are general guidelines and you may need to eat more or less depending on your specific situation.

Chat with a Happy Family Coach

A Happy Family Coach can provide more individualized guidance on your diet to help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.