If you're a breastfeeding mom, add these healthy superfoods to your diet to get the nutrients you need.
As a breastfeeding mother, you’re a milk-making machine 24 hours a day! There isn’t a moment in the day that your body isn’t actively making milk for your little one. Many breastfeeding mothers report feeling constantly hungry, and this hunger comes from the amount of calories that your body uses making each ounce of milk. Fueling your body with nutrient-dense foods that help replenish it with everything it needs is vital. While the breastfeeding superfoods in this section have not been clinically proven to be lactogenic, many have been used for centuries all around the world to nourish nursing mothers and contain a nutrient-rich mix of healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants that are ideal for the breastfeeding mother.
Avocados are a nutritional powerhouse for nursing moms. A common complaint of nursing mothers is that they are often very hungry due to the increased caloric demands of nursing and have very little time to prep and eat meals. Avocados are nearly 80 percent fat and help maintain a feeling of fullness in addition to providing your body with heart-healthy fats. Avocados are also a good source of B vitamins, vitamin K, folate, potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
Another powerhouse of nutrition, nuts are high in essential minerals such as iron, calcium, and zinc as well as vitamin K and B vitamins. They are also a healthy source of essential fatty acids and protein. Beyond their phenomenal nutritional makeup, nuts are also regarded as lactogenic foods in many parts of the world. While there’s little clinical evidence to substantiate the use of nuts as a galactagogue, they have been used in traditional ayurvedic medicine for generations, especially almonds, which are not only written about extensively in ayurvedic literature but are one of the most widely used lactogenic foods in the world.
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3. Beans and legumes
Beans and legumes are good sources of protein, vitamins, minerals, and phytoestrogens. Chickpeas have been used as a galactagogue since the time of ancient Egypt and are a staple food in North African, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cuisine, making them one of the most highly accessible galactagogues. Although chickpeas are the most traditionally used lactogenic legume, there’s no need to limit yourself to one type of bean or legume for its lactogenic properties. For instance, soybeans have the highest phytoestrogen content of all beans. Eating a variety of beans and legumes is good not only for your general health, but also for helping to ensure that you have a healthy milk supply.
Mushrooms aren’t typically regarded as lactogenic foods, but certain types of mushrooms are good sources of the polysaccharide beta-glucan, thought to be the principle lactogenic agent responsible for the galactagogue properties of both barley and oats. Because barley and oats have proven lactogenic power, it’s not a stretch to deduce that other foods high in beta-glucans such as mushrooms would have the same lactogenic effects. In my own clinical practice, I’ve found that women who increase their intake of beta-glucan rich foods such as oats, barley, certain types of mushrooms, yeast, and algae/seaweed have seen an increase in milk production. Reishi, shiitake, maitake, shimeji, and oyster mushrooms have the highest beta-glucan content in the mushroom family.
5. Green leafy vegetables
In Thailand, a mother’s first line of defense against low milk supply is the consumption of vegetables. While there’s no current published research on the lactogenic properties of green leafy vegetables, consuming more vegetables will only benefit your health while also establishing good eating habits for your baby to follow when she begins consuming solids around six months of age. Green leafy vegetables contain phytoestrogens, which have been shown to have a positive effect on milk production. This may be the key to understanding their lactogenic power. Many mothers worry that consuming green leafy vegetables such as broccoli or cabbage will increase gassiness and fussiness in their infant. However, this is not true: The carbohydrate portion of these vegetables, which is what can cause gas, cannot transfer into the breast milk.
6. Red and orange root vegetables
While red and orange vegetables have yet to be studied specifically for their galactagogue properties, they have been used as lactogenic foods in many cultures around the world for hundreds of years. Red and orange root vegetables such as carrots and yams have also been used for generations in the traditional Chinese zuoyuezi diet (zuoyuezi means “sit the month” and is a time of resting for new mothers) with the belief that they not only nourish the mother but help her nourish the child by increasing the quality and quantity of her breast milk. Any lactogenic properties that red and orange root vegetables might have are likely similar to those of green leafy vegetables. The phytoestrogens in these plants in addition to their high-nutrient density may play a role in improving breast milk.
Seeds are a nutritional gift! They are the very beginning of life for every plant on earth. They provide a concentrated source of all the nutrients found in the mature plant as well as the nutrients needed to grow the tiny seed into a beautiful blooming plant. Seeds are high in protein and essential minerals such as iron, zinc, and calcium, as well as healthy fats. Like nuts, seeds are not clinically proven to have lactogenic properties, but they have been used for centuries to help breastfeeding mothers thanks to their high vitamin and mineral content. Every seed has its unique nutritional makeup, so choose a variety including sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.
8. Chia seeds
While chia seeds might seem like a new phenomenon, they have been widely consumed for centuries and were a staple food of the Aztecs and Mayans. Chia seeds are not only a rich source of fiber, protein, calcium, and magnesium but also have a high omega-3 fatty acid content. Due to their high fiber and protein content as well as their favorable fatty acid concentration, chia seeds help you feel more satisfied and fuller longer after a meal. Chia oil is also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and has a neutral and pleasant flavor.
9. Hemp Seeds
Like chia seeds, hemp seeds have found their way onto this superfood list due to their high content of omega-3 fatty acids and healthy nutrient composition. Hemp seeds have a favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 3:1 and are a complete protein, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids needed by the human body in perfect proportions. While hemp seeds are high in many vitamins and minerals, they are especially high in iron and zinc, which are important for infant growth and maternal health.
Flaxseeds are an excellent source of protein, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids, but in order to unlock their benefits, they must be ground—whole flaxseeds can’t be digested in the body and are excreted unchanged. Flax oil is also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and has a sweet and light taste that pairs well with veggies and blends seamlessly into smoothies. The studied health benefits of flaxseeds are far-reaching, from weight loss and blood glucose control to reduced risk of certain types of cancers, cardiovascular disease, and inflammation.
Although turmeric is used throughout the world by breastfeeding mothers as a galactagogue, there’s no clinical evidence to support that the herb has any effect on the volume of breast milk a mother produces. However, the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric have been demonstrated in clinical studies to be important to the health and well-being of breastfeeding mothers for the prevention and treatment of mastitis as well as to ease the symptoms associated with breast engorgement (see pages 40 and 17 for more on these conditions). In several communities throughout Asia, turmeric is also believed to help boost the immune system of not only mom but baby, to ward off coughs and colds.
Ashwagandha is an herb used traditionally in ayurvedic medicine that goes by many other names, including Indian ginseng and winter cherry. Ashwagandha is considered a multipurpose herb that works on several body systems at once, including the neurologic, immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems. Though it hasn’t been shown to have any specific lactogenic properties, it’s a godsend to breastfeeding mothers who are experiencing stress. In clinical studies, 300 mg twice a day of ashwagandha extract significantly reduced stress in study participants. Not only did the participants who received ashwagandha feel a greater relief of their overall stress and an increase in their quality of life, but their cortisol levels were significantly lower. Ashwagandha also seems to have an effect on endurance and energy, although the reasons for this are still unknown. Ashwagandha is a well-studied herb with more than 60 research articles available on its use for a variety of different disease processes, although the exact mechanism by which it works is still unknown. When you think of the many ways that stress affects every system in your body, it’s easy to see how ashwagandha’s effect on stress hormones can influence the rest of the body as well.
Excerpted from Boost Your Breast Milk: An All-In-One Guide for Nursing Mothers to Build a Healthy Milk Supply. © 2017 by Alicia C. Simpson. Reprinted with permission of The Experiment. www.theexperimentpublishing.com
Alicia C. Simpson, MS, RD, IBCLC, LD, is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and registered dietitian specializing in maternal and pediatric nutrition. The executive director and founder of the nonprofit Pea Pod Nutrition and Lactation Support, she provides nutrition and breastfeeding education to mothers. In addition to Boost Your Breast Milk, she has written three cookbooks, including Quick and Easy Vegan Comfort Food, and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.