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Today’s episode is number two in my Milk Supply 101 series and we are talking all about the role nutrition plays in our milk supply. This is such a dense topic, so it won’t be the only episode in the series about nutrition, but today is going to focus on the main points I want you to remember, including how to understand how much food you need to eat while breastfeeding or pumping and if “lactation foods” actually work.
I do want to give a quick disclaimer too. Every time I talk about this topic on social media, I get pushback from some healthcare professionals saying “the only thing that matters is how much you feed your baby” and “there isn’t enough published research to confirm everything you’re saying.”
I will come right out and say that not everything we’re going to be talking about today has a specific study attached to it. Unfortunately lactation nutrition isn’t very well researched, so most of the time the answer you’re going to get is “because we don’t know for sure, the answer is no.” So if that mentality is how you want to approach your health, I totally support that because that is ultimately your decision.
However, the reason I feel confident in our conversation today is because not only have I backed everything up with research and facts, I’m also going to be sharing real life examples of myself and women that I’ve worked with that prove that my approach to lactation nutrition isn’t crazy. It’s just different.
How is it different? Well, think back really hard to 10th grade pre-calc. Do you remember the transitive property? It basically says “if A = B and B = C, then A = C” and that’s how you could prove mathematical theories. That’s where lots of my suggestions and advice come from. So while I might not have a published study for every conclusion I’ve made, I do have lots of other types of evidence to support my line of reasoning.
In addition, many of the things I teach my clients and my audience follows more of a functional medicine approach, which is why some people push back or disagree with me. And that’s fine too. I’m not here to convince you one type of medicine is better or one type of medicine is wrong. Our conversation today is more about opening your mind to a new approach to nourishing your milk supply that still has evidence behind it, just in a different way.
Again, if this doesn’t float your boat, that’s totally fine.
So, with all that said, I really hope you learn something new today and feel a little less stressed about your milk supply. What you’re going to hear in today’s episode is what changed my life 3 years ago and it’s what hundreds of women have implemented to find success in their own breastfeeding journey.
I wanna give a quick shoutout to Paige for her review on episode 13: “This was a super helpful episode! I am so glad to be able to reference back to these show notes too. Thank you Brooke!” No, thank YOU Paige! I’m so happy the shownotes were helpful to you. For reference, episode 13 is all about non-toxic swaps for your home and it’s jam-packed full of brands and options, so definitely go check that out.
Okay, let’s finally dive into today’s episode all about how nutrition impacts your milk supply!
The first thing I need to ingrain in your brain is that your milk has to come from somewhere. What do I mean by this? There’s a law of physics that says energy can neither be created nor destroyed. So when it comes to your milk supply, the energy/nutrients for your milk have to come from somewhere: either your diet or, if your diet is lacking, your own nutrient stores. If it’s the latter, your supply will hang on for a bit, but eventually your supply will drop and you yourself will be depleted, which, as you know, is not good.
Thus, your diet is critical for maintaining your milk supply. Not only how much you eat, but what types of foods you eat too, and we’ll get into that a bit later.
I remember about a year ago, I posted a video on Tiktok talking about this and a bunch of lactation consultants came after me. They responded by saying that diet doesn’t impact milk supply because milk is made from your bloodstream, not your gut.
So let’s talk about it. It IS correct that your milk is made from your bloodstream (in fact, I talk about this in depth in episode 15) and this only proves why nutrition is critical for your milk supply: after you digest and break down your food in your gut, the nutrients from your food get released into your bloodstream so they can be transported to the various tissues, muscles, organs, and cells that need them, including your milk ducts. Hence, your diet DOES directly impact your milk supply!
Here’s a quick review of the digestive process from the National Institute of Health: “Digestion works by moving food through the GI tract. Digestion begins in the mouth with chewing and ends in the small intestine. As food passes through the GI tract, it mixes with digestive juices, causing large molecules of food to break down into smaller molecules. The body then absorbs these smaller molecules through the walls of the small intestine into the bloodstream, which delivers them to the rest of the body.”
Another thing I need you to internalize is that when we talk about your milk supply, we are NOT just talking about baby’s health. This is one of my biggest frustrations with maternal care - it’s that it’s not about the mom! It’s not maternal care, it’s neonatal care! It’s always focused on baby. (ie “here are the vitamins baby needs to grow” but the question we should really be asking is “what nutrients does MOM need to optimize her health so baby can grow” - do you see the mental shift that needs to happen?)
Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that baby isn’t important. What I AM saying is that in order for baby to be healthy, mom has to be healthy first. So when we have this conversation about nutrition and your milk supply, I’m not just going to tell you what foods are good for your baby. Because, honestly, you’re coming at it from the wrong end of the equation. In fact, if you neglect mom’s health, you’re taking mom out of the equation which means there’s no equation at all. So today I’m going to help you understand what to eat so YOUR body is optimized and nourished so that you have full capacity to nourish your baby. Make sense? Let’s dive in.
So let’s talk about how much food you should be eating. (I’ll give you a hint, it’s more than what you’re probably eating right now!) I know I don’t have a whiteboard in front of me that I can draw on and you can look at, but try and follow along. I’ll keep it as simple as possible.
You, as the mom, have a certain number of calories you need each day to function. This number is based on your age, height, weight, gender, and activity level. If you want to get an estimate of what your number is, you can use an online calorie calculator to see, but for today’s example, we’re just going to use 2000 calories as your number.
This is going to be your baseline. Now, it’s estimated that full-time breastfeeding or pumping requires about anywhere from 400-700 calories per day, but we’re going to use the stat from ACOG (American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology) and the National Institute of Health, which is 500 calories. Using this number, our daily minimum for total calories is 2,500.
On top of that, if you return to doing moderate exercise each day, let’s say that requires another 300 calories. Your grand total for the daily minimum of total calories is 2,800 calories. 2,800!
This number ensures that all your needs are met AND all of baby’s needs are met. Remember, we want to completely take care of you too, not just baby.
Now, this logic is pretty simple right? Well, unfortunately, when I Googled the question “how many calories for breastfeeding” I got mixed answers. Thankfully the CDC got it right but I found a random pediatric website that literally said “while nursing, you should not consume less than 1500-1800 calories per day, and most women should stay at the high end of this range.” Are we kidding. 1,800 calories for a breastfeeding mom? That’s barely enough for a sedentary adult woman.
This makes me so sad. Not only is this absolutely false and misleading information, but this completely neglects the mother’s needs. How is a grown woman supposed to nourish herself and her growing baby with just 1,800 calories a day? The answer is she can’t. She might have a milk supply, but it won’t be very nutrient dense and eventually mom will have a slew of health problems.
The key takeaway here is that eating less is NOT the answer. But now I’m sure you’re wondering if what you eat affects your milk supply? The answer is absolutely. Let’s learn why.
Breast milk contains about 88% water, 7% carbs, 1% protein, and 4% fat (PMC7402982), but from a caloric standpoint, fat accounts for over 50% of the total calories in mature breast milk. While you can’t change the macronutrient ratio in breastmilk, you can influence the type of fat as well as the amount of vitamins and minerals in your milk. Decades of research has confirmed that “fat content in [human breast milk] is closely related to maternal diet and weight gain during pregnancy” (PMC7402982), specifically the amount of trans fat, ALA, EPA, and DHA.
If you need a quick refresher on the types of fat, here’s the low down: dietary fat is crucial for healthy hormones, brain development and function, and absorbing vitamins. ALA, EPA, and DHA are specific types of omega-3 fats, the healthy fats if you will, and trans fat is the “bad fat” that increases your risk for heart disease. We get the healthy fats from foods like avocados, nuts, salmon, and eggs, and we get trans fats from processed foods.
It is well documented that the types of fats you get in your diet transfer to your breastmilk. In fact, it is recommended that lactating moms who follow vegetarian or vegan diets supplement with DHA because their diet won’t provide enough for them and baby.
As for vitamins, [human breast milk] “contains enough vitamins to ensure normal growth of the infant,” except for vitamin D and K. For this reason, infants are supplemented with vitamin K at birth and mom is encouraged to supplement with vitamin D in her diet.
I want to make a quick note about vitamin D supplementation. Pediatricians will often recommend or even provide infant vitamin D drops without any consideration of mom’s diet. Now, what I’m about to say is my personal opinion, so keep that in mind, but I would rather you supplement with vitamin D first before just going straight to supplementing your baby. I’ll share why in just a bit.
Moving on, let’s quick chat about minerals in your breastmilk. Minerals are most abundant in colostrum, the milk baby gets during the first 3-5 days of life, and they significantly decrease as lactation progresses. That being said, the minerals that are present in mature breast milk are very bioavailable, which means the quality of the minerals are the easiest to be absorbed by your baby and their gut.
Surprisingly, “most minerals are not significantly affected by maternal status and do not vary greatly with maternal supplements” (PMC7402982). This is why you taking an iron supplement is not going to increase the iron content of your milk. Don’t worry though, baby is born with enough iron stores to last them the first six months of life until you introduce solids (PMC6008960). Then it’s encouraged for you to include iron-rich foods in their diet, and if necessary, iron supplements.
Let’s talk about key nutrients to be mindful of when trying to optimize your health and your milk supply. There are so many important things that you and your baby need to thrive, but there are five specific ones I want you to really try to prioritize every single day. Not only will they help your milk supply but they will help you feel your best while recovering from pregnancy and healing postpartum.
Potassium is one of the macrominerals, which means it’s required in larger amounts than other minerals for a healthy body. It’s also an electrolyte, which means it powers your individual cells with an electric charge to provide energy for your body.
Another important function of potassium is transporting the thyroid hormone into your cells. If you can’t get thyroid hormone into your cells, your metabolism, immune system, and hormone responses will suffer. You’ll also experience fatigue on top of all the things in your life that make you tired.
Lastly, potassium works with sodium to keep fluid levels inside and outside your cells balanced. This helps ensure that your cells are energized, nourished, and functioning properly at all times.
The easiest way to remember potassium-rich foods is your fruits and roots. Think bananas, avocados, and tomatoes for the fruits, and root vegetables like potatoes, dark leafy greens, and carrots. Cream of tartar is also a great place to get potassium (its chemical name is literally potassium bicarbonate!); just add half a teaspoon to your smoothies, oatmeal, or mineral drinks and that’s an easy 250mg right there.
As for supplements, I recommend getting an electrolyte drink that’s higher in potassium like Just Ingredients, Redmond Relyte, and Ultima Replenisher. You can use my discount code “thewellnourishedmama” for 10% off your order of any Just Ingredients products. You can also find a meta analysis of 20 other electrolyte brands on my blog and I linked that in the shownotes.
Magnesium is another macromineral and electrolyte. Like potassium, it lives inside your cell and is involved in over 600 enzymatic reactions in the body. You need magnesium to relax your muscles, help with digestion, and regulate your mood. And because you’re trying to maintain a healthy milk supply, it’s important to have enough magnesium so all those enzymatic reactions are working at 100% capacity.
Above all, the most important reason you should prioritize your magnesium intake is because “magnesium from maternal bone is mobilized during lactation [to supply] the mammary gland.” In other words, the magnesium that is in your breast milk comes from your own stores by default and is “not affected by maternal intake or supplementation” (PMC10534677).
So, in this case, magnesium is almost exclusively for your health and benefit, not for baby.
The easiest way to remember food sources of magnesium is beans and greens. Think canned beans, lentils, peanuts, spinach, kale, and herbs. Avocados, nuts, and unsweetened dark chocolate are also good sources of magnesium.
Because stress depletes magnesium incredibly fast, whether it’s physical stress like breastfeeding or mental stress like being a patient, loving mom 24/7, I highly doubt you’re going to get enough from your diet alone. That’s why I personally take a magnesium supplement every day.
My favorite brand is Bioptimizers because it has all 7 forms of magnesium in one dose, it’s non-toxic, and it has vitamin B6 with it, which is required for your cells to absorb magnesium effectively. (Sidenote: I also took this to help with morning sickness during pregnancy and it worked wonders for me, so it’s an amazing supplement to keep on hand indefinitely!) You can shop my magnesium supplement at the link in the shownotes.
Like I mentioned earlier, you can’t change the total amount of fat in your breast milk, but you can change the type of fat in your breast milk. Omega-3 fats are critical for baby’s brain development and hormone regulation, especially because of how quickly they learn, grow, and develop in the first year.
In addition, omega-3 fats are vital for your brain and hormone health, especially during pospartum. They also give you long lasting energy and stable blood sugar levels, which is important for maintaining a healthy milk supply.
Some easy ways to get omega-3 fats in your diet is by switching your vegetable oils in cooking to fruit oils like olive oil and avocado oil, adding eggs to your boxed pancake mix, and enjoying homemade trail mix as a midnight snack while you feed.
I also love adding frozen avocado to my smoothies because it makes the smoothie extra creamy and I get the omega-3 fats, fiber, potassium, and magnesium all at once. Basically, avocados give you three of the five key nutrients we’re talking about today all at once, so find tons of ways to get more avocados in your diet!
I know a high protein diet is trendy right now, but it’s far from a fad diet. People, especially women, are starting to realize the true superpower that protein is and just how much it affects our entire body.
Protein is just a fancy way of saying “chains of amino acids” and amino acids are the building blocks of literally everything in your body, including muscle, tissue, ligaments, hormones, and neurotransmitters. It affects, your blood sugar levels, metabolism, mood, digestion, immune system, and your milk supply.
Protein is another one of the nutrients that is more important for you than baby because you can’t really change the amount of protein in your breast milk. What you can change is how much milk you produce altogether, how energized you feel, and how efficient your metabolism is postpartum.
The best places to get protein are animal products like grass-fed beef, chicken, eggs, wild caught fish, and dairy products like milk, greek yogurt, and cottage cheese. Plant sources of protein include nuts, seeds, and quinoa. Try to include a wide variety of all those foods for the best (and most affordable) results.
If that sounds overwhelming to you or you just want someone else to do the work for you, I’ve got you. I have a free two week high-protein meal plan that comes with recipes for every meal of the day, including snacks and desserts, as well as full printable grocery lists you can take with you to the store. Over 1000 people have used this meal plan so far and I’ve heard incredible responses from other readers. There’s also a blog post that goes along with it, and both of these resources are linked in the shownotes.
When it comes to protein supplements like protein bars and protein powders, I want you to remember that they are supplements, which means they are there to fill in the gaps in your diet and be a convenience item for you in a pinch. Some examples might be a protein bar during a night feeding because you don’t want to walk to the kitchen to make food or a protein shake as you’re running errands in the afternoon. They should not be meal replacements or the bulk of the protein you consume each day.
I also want to mention that you DO NOT need a “lactation protein powder” for it to help build your milk supply. Any protein powder will help you. My favorite protein powder is Just Ingredients because it’s 100% grass fed, there’s four different protein sources to get a variety of amino acids, and there’s no artificial sweeteners, preservatives, or ingredients. You can use my code “thewellnourishedmama” for 10% off your order.
For a meta-analysis of all the most popular protein powders on the market and if I recommend them for lactation, head to the shownotes and click to read my blog post all about it. It’s very comprehensive, in-depth, and honest, so it’ll be a great resource for you.
Remember how I mentioned earlier that breast milk lacks sufficient levels of vitamin D and I recommend you supplementing with vitamin D instead of baby? Let’s talk about why (and please remember this is my educated opinion and you should always double check with your doctor and pediatrician before making a final decision):
So how much vitamin D do you need? Currently, the RDI for breastfeeding moms is only 600 IU (PMC5104202), but new research shows that moms need at least 4000 IUs to support themselves, and at least 6000 IUs to get enough vitamin D in their breastmilk for baby.
A randomized, double-blind comparative effectiveness trial published in 2015 compared serum vitamin D levels in babies with infant supplementation of 400 IUs (which is the current standard) or maternal supplementation of 2400 IUs and 6400 IUs. They found that “maternal supplementation with 6400 IU vitamin D3/day was superior to either 2400 IU or 400 IU/day in safely achieving robust maternal vitamin D sufficiency that allowed sufficient vitamin D transfer in the breast milk for infant vitamin D sufficiency” (PMC4586731).
Now, this study did not instigate an official change in the national recommended daily intake for vitamin D and it didn’t replace the current standard of infant supplementation. Because of this, I can’t ethically tell you that this is how you and every mom should approach vitamin D for you and your baby. That being said, I do recommend a solution that takes care of both you and baby, and this study shows that maternal supplementation can be more effective than infant supplementation.
If you choose to go the maternal route, what’s the best way to get vitamin D? I think it’s a combination of a high quality prenatal vitamin, UV exposure, and a nutrient-dense diet. If those three things combined don’t get you enough vitamin D, you can also incorporate an individual vitamin D supplement.
My number one recommendation for prenatal vitamins is Needed: their formula considers both mom and baby, uses the most bioavailable forms of each nutrient, and doesn’t have any added ingredients like dyes, sugars, or preservatives. They also have different tiers of formulas, depending on your budget and your dietary needs. In the Needed Essentials formula, they have 2000 IUs of vitamin D, and this is the formula I use. The other formula has 4000 IUs. If you want to try Needed, you can click the link in the shownotes and use the code “mama20” at checkout for 20% off your first month.
The other brand I recommend is NatureWise. This one is available on Amazon for a similar price point and contains a whole foods complex as well. You can find it at the link in the shownotes.
I mentioned earlier that UV exposure was part of the solution, but there is a catch: if you live outside of the 40°N/S latitudes, it’s significantly harder to get enough vitamin D from sunshine alone. If you live in the U.S., this means if you live north of L.A., Vegas, Oklahoma, and North Carolina, the sun isn’t as reliable of a source of vitamin D.
So that begs the question: can you use a tanning bed in place of the sun? Not really. Tanning beds only use part of the UV spectrum, and you can only use them for a few minutes at a time per day, so this won’t be an effective way to “supplement” with vitamin D. If you are like me and you tan for the darker skin, “sunshine,” and time away from you kids, that’s just fine.
Something else to note is that if you have darker skin, “you are at a 6-fold higher risk for deficiency…[due to] higher levels of the pigment melanin in the skin that inhibits vitamin D production from sun exposure” (Lily Nichols, Real Food For Pregnancy, pg 98). If this is you, supplementation is going to be really important.
Now, remember, we don’t blindly supplement around here. We only supplement when we know exactly what we’re lacking. So, I encourage you to check your vitamin D levels with your doctor and move forward from there. It’s a really simple lab test you can request at a regular doctor’s visit and it’s called “25-hydroxy vitamin D” or “25-OH vitamin D.” According to Lily Nichols, author of “Real Food for Pregnancy,” she notes that although “most labs suggest that normal vitamin D levels are at least 30 ng/ml, [numerous] vitamin D experts suggest optimal levels are 50 ng/ml or more.”
When you do get your lab results back, if you are low in vitamin D, consider supplementing with 4000 IUs for a few months and then get your blood work retested. If you see improvements, keep at that dose. If you’re still a bit low, you can increase your dose until you find the magic number that gets you in that optimal range of 50 ng/ml.
If you decide to get a vitamin D supplement, it’s really important that you get a vitamin D3/K2 combo. D3 is the active form of vitamin D and vitamin K2 is required for utilizing D3 to its full extent. I’ve linked two options for high quality D3/K2 supplements in the shownotes.
Ok, that’s the end of my soap box about vitamin D. Let’s really quickly talk about lactation foods because after the general question of “how do I increase my milk supply?” the next question I get the most is “is xyz food going to help my milk supply” or something like that.
I will remind you that I’m not an IBCLC or a registered dietitian but I am a certified postpartum nutritionist, I read a lot, and I have both personal and professional experience with what I’m about to share, so at the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what’s best for you, what you want to believe, and what you feel comfortable with. I’m just here to open your mind to new information that will help you make an informed decision in your breastfeeding journey.
Remember the transitive property I mentioned earlier? If A = B and B = C so A = C? That frames my answer about specific, well-known lactation foods and why they do or don’t work.
I’m sure you’ve heard that foods like oats, brewer’s yeast, and fenugreek will boost your milk supply. I’m sure you’ve also heard lots of stories about moms who started eating “xyz” food(s) every day and notice their supply increase. And then there’s the lactation companies that try and sell you really expensive lactation supplements.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t purchase lactation supplements or you shouldn’t believe anecdotal stories or experiences from other moms. In fact, I think it’s important to consider other women’s experiences (with a careful eye) because there’s so little research about lactation nutrition, breastfeeding, and postpartum health in general.
But, do lactation foods actually work? I’m going to say yes, but not in the way you think. I don’t think there’s a handful of small foods that exist just for boosting milk supply. The reason, in my opinion, that foods like oats, brewer’s yeast, and herbs are promoted as galactagogues is because they’re nutrient dense. Your body needs nutrients to create milk without stealing from your own stores, so naturally, nutrient dense foods are going to support your milk supply. And when I say “nutrient-dense,” I mean foods rich in minerals, protein, healthy fats, fiber, and/or complex carbohydrates.
So, if we continue that train of thought (that nutrients drive our milk supply) then virtually all nutrient dense foods are technically lactation foods, right?
That’s where I stand with lactation foods. Sure, you can intentionally eat oats, almonds, flaxseed, chickpeas, leafy greens, and herbs every day because those are considered galactagogues, or lactogenic foods, but if it’s too stressful to remember certain foods or you don’t want to eat the same five foods every day, I think it’s just as good (or even better) to just eat a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet at least 80% of the time.
If you’re thinking to yourself “ok Brooke that’s great but I don’t have time or energy and it’s so much work to find recipes that will help me and that my family will like too,” then you’re in luck my friend. That’s exactly why I created my lactation cookbook!
Not only did I develop over 50 recipes with those lactogenic foods you’ve heard about, but I developed dozens of recipes that are easy to make, nutrient-dense, meal prep friendly, kid-friendly, and absolutely delicious! They’re also allergen-friendly so if you can’t have gluten or dairy, there are plenty of options in there for you!
And the best part? I created recipes for every meal, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and desserts, so you have options for every time of day! Some of my favorite recipes are the apple pecan french toast casserole, sesame ginger chicken meatballs, white chocolate cranberry energy balls, neapolitan protein milkshake, and my two-ingredient homemade fudge.
You can download The Milk Mama Lactation Cookbook straight to your phone at the link in the shownotes so be sure to check that out.
Sidenote: if you love learning about the “why” behind lactation nutrition, I wrote a great article about the science behind lactation cookies and did a whole TikTok video on it as well. Both resources are linked in the shownotes.