May 20th, 2011
08:23 AM ET

Can I safely diet while I'm breast-feeding?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Asked from Kimberlee Solares, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

I recently had a baby and gained 32 pounds (BMI was 19.1 to start). I am eager to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight but am breast-feeding and can find little guidance on caloric needs and optimal diet to maintain breast-feeding but to also lose weight. Any ideas?

Expert answer

Hi Kimberlee. Since I just had a baby last year, this topic is fresh in my mind. It took me almost a year to get to my pre-pregnancy weight, although if you start out very thin (a BMI of 19.1 would qualify), you will probably get back to your pre-pregnancy weight more quickly.

I suggest that you wait at least two months after your baby is born to start to focus on weight loss.

You will probably be too exhausted to put in a lot of effort before that, and it is important to make sure that your milk production is good. Regarding optimal diet, it is just as important to eat well now as when you were pregnant. The foundation of your diet should be the same as when you were pregnant (assuming that you were trying to eat healthy then, too).

A healthy breast-feeding diet should include:

- Whole grains (at least three servings per day).
- Lots of vegetables (especially deep green, yellow and orange vegetables, which are excellent sources of vitamins E, C and beta carotene).
- A variety of fruit (especially fruit rich in vitamin C such as citrus, kiwi and strawberries).
- At least five servings of calcium-rich foods, which include dairy, fortified soy products and dark green leafy vegetables.
- At least three servings per day of protein including animal, dairy and plant-based protein (beans and nuts).
- Healthy fats, including olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and fatty fish such as salmon.

For specific guidelines based on your age, weight and your baby's age, check out the USDA calculator for new and expecting moms.

You can consume up to 12 ounces per week of fish, which is a very good source of lean protein. Just avoid fish high in mercury such as shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel and limit canned albacore tuna to 6 ounces per week.

Try to get at least one serving per day of iron-rich food per day (meat, dried fruit, spinach, beans, fortified cereal and soy products).

Caffeine consumption should be limited, as should alcohol consumption, which will also help with weight loss, and you should continue taking your prenatal vitamin and drink plenty of water every day. You don't have to eat only organic produce, just make sure to eat a variety of produce to limit exposure to pesticides.

Your body burns an extra 500 calories per day producing milk, so if you eat the number of calories normally required to maintain your weight, you should lose about a pound per week.

If you start exercising regularly, you could lose weight more quickly, but I would aim for no more than 1.5 pounds per week, as it is essential that you consume enough food to get the nutrients you need to keep your health and energy up.

Note that with sleepless nights (of which I had MANY), you may find that you are hungrier during the day. Protein and fiber-rich foods will help satisfy you.

In addition, make sure to have plenty of ready-to-eat healthy foods to munch on, including nuts, seeds, fresh and dried fruit, low-fat dairy, whole grain crackers, pre-cut vegetables, hummus and whole grain cereals so when you are famished and don't have the energy to cook, you can still eat a nutrient-dense diet most of the time.

soundoff (55 Responses)
  1. Trevor

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    May 20, 2011 at 11:02 | Report abuse | Reply
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      May 20, 2011 at 12:37 | Report abuse |
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      May 20, 2011 at 17:46 | Report abuse |
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  2. Jenny K

    Thanks to Dr. Jampolis for such an in-depth answer!

    I had a baby in 2010 as well, and started out very thin, gaining about 30-35 lbs during my pregnancy. I discovered that within 6-8 months, breastfeeding alone had dropped me back to my pre-pregnancy weight (I did a little yoga, but wasn't very good about exercising, as I should have been). My baby and I were fortunate and were able to do as the WHO recommends – breastmilk only for 6 months, then continued breastfeeding with the addition of solid foods until 1 year.

    Thanks for emphasizing healthy foods and exercise, as opposed to cutting calories. My experience nursing showed me that I was not able to decrease the amount of calories I consumed each day, nor skimp on water, or else the amount of milk I produced would decrease. As long as I ate plenty and was hydrated, I had plenty of milk. However, I could and did consume healthier calories instead of junk food, and this is what allowed me to continue to drop weight.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • bfeeding mom

      Actually, the WHO recommends breastfeeding until age 2

      May 20, 2011 at 17:10 | Report abuse |
  3. dx2718

    I gained weight while breast-feeding, but didn't care because it was so nice to be hungry after 9 months of constant nausea! To me, the baby's health was most important and I needed to make sure I was providing the nutrients she needed. Weight loss for me could and did wait until she was weaned, as long as I stayed healthy. Part of the problem is that during pregnancy your stores of various essentials get depleted to grow the baby's body, and after birth you need to replenish yourself in order to maintain optimal health – if you diet, you can't easily control whether you're depriving yourself of necessary nutrients or just burning your fat stores. If you're thinking about your own vanity over the baby's nutrition then you need to see a psychiatrist, not a dietician.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • D

      I think that should have been part of the answer to the question. Unless this woman is extremely short, I can't see that much of a temporary weight gain (from a starting point of BMI 19) being that big a deal. Also, it is not clear if the 32 pound gain was before the baby was delivered or post-delivery. If it was before the delivery, she is being even more uptight. Just take care of your baby!

      May 20, 2011 at 18:27 | Report abuse |
    • LEB

      Yes, the baby's needs and health are important, but the mother's are just as important. There are numerous studies suggesting that mothers who don't lose all of their baby weight between pregnancies risk never losing it, and become susceptible to all sorts of health problems. Although a new mom shouldn't starve herself, it IS important for her to eat well and fit in exercise where she can. Getting back to a healthy weight post-partum is about a heck of a lot more than fitting back into your old jeans!

      May 21, 2011 at 21:34 | Report abuse |
  4. Kelly

    I was never any more hungry than usual while pregnant, but learned the true meaning of the word famished when I was breastfeeding. I, too, started out on the slim side, and was back down to my fighting weight just a few months after birth without doing anything more than taking walks with the stroller and trying to eat well. Keeping healthy snacks around-almonds, fruit, granola bars-helped a ton when I was too exhausted to actually put a meal together.

    May 20, 2011 at 13:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. T3chsupport

    Remember, folks. It took you (in general) 9 months to gain the weight, it's not going to all go away overnight! Eat right and exercise, but also be patient.

    May 20, 2011 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Cathy W

    I'm one of those lucky women who lost my pregancy weight easily, due to breastfeeding (my mother was the same way). I didn't watch what I ate at all, produced tons of milk (my baby went from 10th percentile at birth to 80th by 6 months), and lost all 45 pounds within 6 weeks, and lost an additional 20 pounds in the following months (I was somewhat overweight to begin with, so I had it to lose). Alas, when my daughter was no longer exclusively breastfeeding, I kept eating like I had been and gained it all back. That was 9 years ago and now I'm slowly taking the weight back off, watching my calories for the first time in my life. I miss how easily the weight came off when breastfeeding, 'cause it's not easy now.

    May 20, 2011 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sasha

      Ironically I had the same problem I was below my pre=pregnancy weight in less than 3 months without any exercise or atching how much or what I ate, after I stopped I started gaining weight because I was so accustomed to eating whatever I wanted

      June 3, 2011 at 01:59 | Report abuse |
  7. burns

    When my wife was pregnant I gained 30 lbs since she stopped cooking. As soon as the kid dropped she was back to the kitchen and I lost the weight easily.

    May 20, 2011 at 15:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • D

      You could learn how to cook healthy too. How helpless you sound!

      May 20, 2011 at 18:18 | Report abuse |
    • Sasha

      You are funny, is it because you dont enjoy your wife's food so you eat less hahaha

      June 3, 2011 at 02:01 | Report abuse |
  8. D

    I am sorry but this question really bothers me. So if you go from very thin to average weight for a few months is it such a big deal? Sometimes women act like the choice to have a baby should have no impact on their body. Unrealistic! If it were from someone who was 300 pounds before they had the baby and wanted to lose while they were breastfeeding, I could understand completely. She needs a shrink. Hope it isn't the baby's father that is instigating the "problem" here.

    May 20, 2011 at 18:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LEB

      Newsflash... going from thin to average weight means that you can't fit into most of your clothes. Someone with a BMI of 19.1 is probably a size 2 or 4. When you're that small, gaining just 5 lbs means half your wardrobe no longer fits! It is *expensive* to have to buy a whole new wardrobe, and you can't wear maternity clothes and yoga pants forever. Wanting to be more or less the size you were before pregnancy isn't vain, it's a common and quite practical desire.

      May 21, 2011 at 21:43 | Report abuse |
    • me

      LEB has a point. I started out at a 19 BMI and was delighted to gain 30 lbs for my son. I'd love to keep some of the extra weight because I feel good about myself with a few more pounds, but having to buy a whole new wardrobe is a concern. I've been the same size for nearly 20 years since high school and I have a nice, professional wardrobe. When I tried to wear some of my previous clothes postpartum, I found that nothing fit. Fortunately I'm on maternity leave for now, so I can wear sweatpants and stretchy clothes, but when I need tailored pants and blazers, etc... for work, I dread the expense. A nice, basic work wardrobe can be expensive no matter how thrifty you are. Then there are things like good fitting bras and more. I'm torn between wanting to keep some of my baby weight so I can be more of a midrange healthy BMI, but also realizing that would mean buying all new clothes.

      May 22, 2011 at 04:43 | Report abuse |
    • no fat chicks

      D, a 650 lb person would say that a 350 lb person has "nothing to worry about". The fact is, our society has a flaming "no fat chicks" policy that affects ALL OF US, no matter what size we are. I'm 5'6" and at 125 lbs, a guy I was with told me I needed to lose weight. When you start at a BMI of 19 and gain 30 lbs, it looks and feels enormous. I don't think the writer is being unreasonable at all.

      May 22, 2011 at 21:35 | Report abuse |
    • Sasha

      @no fat chicks, ppl will always complain and criticise, the important thing is that you are healthy and you like the way you look, be reasonable. After having my baby everyone was complaining how skinny I looked because i lost more than what I had gained but who cares, ppl will just say whateva they want

      June 3, 2011 at 02:07 | Report abuse |
  9. Deidre

    I have three children. With each child, I gained 40 pounds throughout the pregnancy. Eight months after each delivery, I went back to my normal weight. I never did anything special, and I never dieted. I did breastfeed each child, but I can't say for certain that it helped me lose the baby weight.

    May 20, 2011 at 22:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Beth

    Lots tons of weight quickly while nursing my son. Those extra 500 calories a day I burned made all the difference. It was easy to lose weight while nursing. There are many other much better reasons to nurse but if that is your motivation it's going to work if you eat what you would normally eat.

    May 21, 2011 at 09:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. John

    I didn't have time to read the whole article, but I just want to say that breast feeding would not normally be part of a successful weight loss strategy as mother's milk is exceedingly high in fat. I just can't see how you would lose much weight while breast feeding unless your "source" agreed to restrict your intake.

    May 21, 2011 at 11:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • so dumb

      Go back to milking your johnson, johnnyboy.

      May 22, 2011 at 21:38 | Report abuse |
    • Amiblue

      Hmmmm..... I think someone has too much air between their ears here...

      June 17, 2011 at 14:15 | Report abuse |
  12. Shannon

    My lactation consultant after my first pregnancy told me starving women in 3rd world countries are able to breastfeed with no problem, so you don't need to overeat. The important thing is to get enough water and eat healthy foods. There seems to be a prevailing notion that maintaining a healthy BMI is somehow selfish or vain? It is every bit an important part of your health as anything else. And since you should only gain about 10 pounds of fat during your pregnancy it should be somewhat easy to take it off. The problem is many women gain a lot more than that and risk their health by not losing. To John- Your body burns a lot of fat producing that high fat milk, helping many women return to their fighting weight 🙂

    May 21, 2011 at 12:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Zack Carter

    If the thing that worries you the most after having a child is losing a little weight, maybe you should consider adoption. That extra weight is going to feeding your child – and if you just eat healthy and exercise the weight comes off. Dieting of any kind is a ludicrous notion. This article is sickening that there are so many self-absorbed unfit mothers out there.

    May 21, 2011 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Mother's Choice

    I think its interesting the number of men weighing in on this topic, especially since they do not have to go through any of the physical aspects of pregnancy or afterwards. I am quite sure the lady who posed the question was looking for some simple advice and was not at all being self-centered or vain. I am expecting my second child in a few weeks and I know beyond any doubt that caring for another life is the most self-less act anyone can perform. The question of getting back to her normal weight is a great question because as the pregnancy progresses we begin to feel like huge blimps on stilts. The sooner we get back to normal, the more effective we can perform and take on our challenge of raising a new life. Instead of criticizing her, support her. The advice given was great and it was a perfectly honest question.

    May 21, 2011 at 21:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. natural function

    I think it's apparent that breast feeding is enabled by the weight gain during pregnancy. Weight gain is the body's way of preparing for a period of increased calorie expenditure, and breast feeding is a strain on the body. It would be more of a problem to not gain weight.

    May 21, 2011 at 23:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. me

    Wow. A 19 BMI falls into a healthy weight range, (healthy is 18.5-24.9,) but it certainly wouldn't be my top priority! I started at a 19 BMI and gained 30 lbs with my newborn son. I'm actually hoping that I don't lose all the weight because I'd love to keep a few pounds and hit more of a 21-22 BMI so I can be closer to the mid range of healthy. I'm breast feeding and losing weight is the last thing I care about right now! I have to wonder if the person asking the question has an eating disorder or body image problem.

    May 22, 2011 at 04:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Pleth1

    First off the people complaining about this question have not read the question properly. She is asking how to maintain a PROPER diet. I believe that one of the great problems in society today is that most of the populace does not understand the word "diet". Diet does not equate losing weight, in fact the word diet only means the normal food being ingested and all of the other things associated with food. Culture is an association with diet in which some people will eat at certain times of the day (most North Americans excluding Mexicans will eat 3x a day at specific times such as approximately 7-9AM, 11-1PM and then finally at 4-6PM). Diet also can include general lifestyle choices related to activity. Thus her question was how to have a healthy diet so that she may keep breastfeeding. As a physician I am happy to see that she wants to maintain a proper diet not only for herself but also for her child which is the future.

    May 22, 2011 at 11:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Pleth1

    I forgot to add that a persons diet can be heating 6,000 calories of fat if they wish. Clearly an insane diet but it is nonetheless a diet.

    May 22, 2011 at 11:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Pleth1

      Darn it, eating I wish they had an editing tool

      May 22, 2011 at 11:48 | Report abuse |
  19. Mama

    Where a lot of people get confused is in what a "diet" is. If your specific "diet" that you want to follow is restricting a entire food category like sugar, or carbs, or meat then NO, you definitely shouldn't "diet" while breastfeeding. But if your changing your eating habits, and learning to eat healthy and in moderation, then yes....
    Weight Watchers does not allow nor encourage pregnant women to follow their program. However, they do have a program for breastfeeding mothers in which they just add a few points to your daily allotment.

    May 24, 2011 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
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