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.

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