Why You May Have Postpartum Cravings When Breastfeeding—and How To Satisfy Them

Why you should try filling up on healthy foods postpartum.

Working at home mom

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The days and weeks after labor and delivery are known as the postpartum period. For many new parents, this is a time of bonding, getting used to the lack of sleep, and instituting new family schedules. For some, it's a time of sadness as they battle postpartum depression. This is also the time when the birthing parent might look at their figure in the mirror and wonder where their old body is hiding. And nursing parents may wonder if they'll ever get the hang of breastfeeding.

For five months, I used one excuse to deny myself absolutely nothing, food-wise. An extra slice of pizza? My kids' hot dogs, of course? Halloween candy, yes? "It's OK," I said. "I'm nursing!" I was under the impression that nursing was something like liposuction and that my baby-body weight would just melt away. With how much the baby is nursing, surely she's sucking the fat cells from my body, right?

But then I learned that nursing is no reason to eat whatever I wanted at the buffet—quite the opposite. I need to make sure I'm filling up on specific kinds of foods to nourish the baby properly. And, to my chagrin, I learned that my ravenous appetite has nothing to do with the voluminous amounts of breast milk I'm producing.

For a nursing nutrition reality check, I connected with Frances Largeman-Roth, the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Moms Healthy Eating Guide.

As a former nursing mother, Largeman-Roth sympathized with my ravenous appetite and gave some recommendations regarding my diet.

Breastfeeding Burns 500 Calories a Day

"If you're breastfeeding exclusively, you're burning up to 500 calories a day," Largeman-Roth said.

And what should I eat for those extra 500 calories? Largeman-Roth advised that I focus on these items:

  • Calcium-rich foods, including dairy and dark leafy greens
  • High-quality, lean sources of protein such as poultry, bison, fish, and eggs
  • Foods rich in water, potassium, and vitamin C—basically fruits and vegetables
  • Foods rich in DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that helps babies' brain development—think fatty fish, fortified eggs
  • Choline-rich foods: Eggs are the best source, plus wheat germ, pork, soybeans, and cauliflower

No-No Nursing Foods

Largeman-Roth cautioned against eating too many mercury-laden fish—this is a good warning, even after pregnancy. Guess, I'll need to pass on the sushi bar.

Largeman-Roth cautioned against caffeine or foods that are too spicy, garlicky, or filled with onions. These foods can pass into breast milk. I can attest to that last point, having nursed my daughter after an Ethiopian dinner packed with spicy legumes. Her face screwed up into a scowl, and she cried as she drank that spicy concoction.

A Key Ingredient: Sleep

In fact, upon further study, I learned that my insatiable appetite has more to do with sleep deprivation—a staple when it comes to raising a newborn—than with nursing.

Specifically, lack of sleep can alter two hormones that control appetite: It spikes ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, and decreases leptin, which suppresses food intake. Research suggests that people who are sleep-deprived tend to weigh more, possibly because these hormones can't function properly without a good night's sleep. In a study published in Obesity, levels of ghrelin, a hormone that tells your body it's time to eat, increase after a restless night.

After each night of spotty sleep—rarely more than four hours in a row and always up by 6 o'clock with at least one of my girls—I spend all day raiding my pantry for fatty, sugary foods. I think it's a safe assumption that those hormones that regulate appetite are significantly out of whack.

Not only am I running around after three little kids while sleep-deprived, but I actually have devil's advocate hormones telling me that I need to keep eating, even after I'm technically satiated. That's just plain unfair.

Countering the Cravings

My recipe for countering the cravings is getting out for walks, fueling up with protein, staying hydrated, keeping healthy foods available (a bowl of baby carrots staves off trips to the cookie jar), and going to bed as early as I can.

Most importantly, though, I'm going easy on myself. I am nursing, and that's hard work. If eating half of a Ritter Sport Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Bar keeps my eyes open and a smile on my face, sometimes that's just the way to go.

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