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Why and How Eating Protein is One of the Best Ways to Boost Your Milk Supply

Consuming adequate protein is vital to promote and maintain a healthy milk supply for breastfeeding mothers. It’s important to know that your daily requirements for protein significantly increase as a breastfeeding mother. For example, did you know that you will need nearly two times as much protein as the average female?

This is where finding out how much protein you need in your diet, and how to make sure you’re getting the right sources, is necessary. When you consider that the recommended daily intake (RDI) for a non-pregnant and non-nursing woman is 46 grams of protein, requiring double that amount during lactation is certainly substantial! It’s easy to see why many women struggle to meet this requirement on a daily basis.

Don’t dismay – this article will get you up to speed on why and how to maximize protein in your diet, as a great way to provide your baby with a constant boosted milk supply! If you’re wondering why protein is so important to building and maintaining a healthy milk supply, and how you can make sure you are eating enough, have a read below.

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7  What is protein and why is it good for you in general?

This article covers how protein is linked to optimal lactation, how much you require daily as a breastfeeding mother, and the best ways to ensure you’re eating enough protein in your diet. I’ve also done all the hard work for you by listing the richest sources of protein, so you can start eating to enhance your lactation today!

Protein is an essential nutrient for tissue and muscle maintenance, replacement, function, and growth. It also increases metabolism, and produces a feeling of satiety (meaning you will feel fuller and for longer). For the average population, a diet with moderate amounts of protein is therefore recommended (around 25-30%, and this varies for males and females), to ensure muscle building, maintenance and high metabolism.

But what is protein exactly? 

Without boring you with all the fine details, a very quick science lesson is in order. Protein is a macronutrient that is broken down into peptides and amino acids. There are 20 amino acids; 9 which are essential amino acids (EAAs; these cannot be synthesized and must be obtained from the diet). All people require 9 EAAs; infants also require histidine.

6 Why do I need protein for lactation?

Throughout pregnancy, protein is needed to aid your baby’s physical and cellular growth and development. It is additionally needed for the development of the placenta, and maternal and amniotic tissues. Also, protein is required to produce new blood cells, as blood volume increases by 50% when pregnant.

In breast milk, some vitamins and minerals help the babies absorb protein better, and because protein is essential from muscle growth and development, having an adequate supply in your body and your breast milk is optimal for both you and the baby.

Protein is best for your breast milk supply

When it comes to lactation, protein is used by the body to produce breast milk and also to nurture and sustain your growing baby. It is essential for the growth of new cells. Protein is a vital element of breast milk, therefore it is imperative that you consume lots of protein to assist you to build and maintain your milk supply. In turn, this will help nourish your baby’s growth and development. 

5 How much protein do I need if I am breastfeeding?

Altogether, pregnancy and lactation significantly impacts on protein demands. Importantly, if you are pregnant or a breastfeeding mother, your daily requirements for protein dramatically increase. You will need nearly two times as much protein as the average female. 

When pregnant, your RDI of protein increases to 71 grams per day, and again is boosted during lactation by around an additional 20 grams per day. For those of you with twins or a multiple pregnancy, your protein requirements increase yet again. Active lactating women may also require extra protein.

It might seem like a lot, but you can get your protein through other means that meat

You can work out your individual RDI of protein using a simple calculation. The calculation involves using 1.1 grams of protein per kg of body weight (or around 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight). For example, a 75kg breastfeeding woman would need around 82.5 grams of protein daily. However, this is a simple guide only as you need to take into account additional factors, such as your activity level and other individual health specifics. 

4 What are the best types of protein sources?

You need to eat a variety of high-protein foods when lactating to meet your daily quota of protein. Sources rich in protein include the following: lean meats (i.e beef and pork), fish and seafood (salmon and tuna are good choices), poultry (i.e. chicken and turkey), eggs, dairy products (including milk, cheese, and yogurt), soy products, seeds, and nuts. 

If you take a quick look at some of the foods you may already be eating on a regular basis, you will see that it is not that hard to meet your RDI for protein. If you pay attention to the types of foods you include in your diet, eating the RDI of protein is manageable.

Have a look at the following protein levels in these examples:

3-ounces of lean beef, chicken or fish = 20 to 30 grams

3 ounces of tuna = 30 grams

1 cup of cottage cheese = 28 grams

1 egg white = 6 grams

1 TBSP of peanut butter = 5 grams

1 cup of low-fat milk = 8 grams

1 cup of corn = 5 grams

1 ounce of cereal = 6 grams

To help you meet your daily protein needs you can refer to Matthew Kadey’s (a registered dietician in Canada), suggestions for some of the top sources of protein (as follows):

Dairy

  1. Greek yoghurt (23 g per 8 oz. serving)
  2. Cottage cheese (14 g per 1/2 cup serving)
  3. Swiss cheese (8 g per 1 oz. serving)
  4. Eggs (6 g per 1 large egg)
  5. Milk (8 g per 1 cup serving)
  6. Soy milk (8 g per 1 cup serving)

Red meat

  1. Steak (23 g per 3 oz. serving)
  2. Lean ground beef (18 g per 3 oz. serving)
  3. Boneless pork chops (26 g per 3 oz. serving)
  4. 10. Boneless and skinless chicken breast (24 g per 3 oz. serving)
  5. Turkey 24 g per 3 oz. serving

Seafood

  1. Yellowfin tuna (25 g per 3 oz. serving)
  2. Halibut (23 g per 3 oz. serving)
  3. Octopus (25 g per 3 oz. serving)
  4. Sockeye salmon (23 g per 3 oz. serving)
  5. Tilapia (21 g per 3 oz. serving)

Snacks

  1. Jerky (13 g per 1 oz. serving)
  2. Peanut butter (8 g per 2 tbsp serving)
  3. Mixed nuts (6 g per 2 oz. serving)
  4. Bean chips (4 g per 1 oz. serving)

Vegetarian options

  1. Tofu (12 g per 3 oz. serving)
  2. Edamame (8 g per 1/2 cup serving)
  3. Green peas (7 g per 1 cup serving)

Grains

  1. Wheat germ (6 g per 1 oz. serving)
  2. Soba noodles (12 g per 3 oz. serving)
  3. Quinoa (8 g per 1 cup serving)

3 What are “complete protein” sources and why are they important?

So now that you know the best sources of protein, it seems easy to get enough protein in your day, right? Not quite! What you need to consider on top of simply meeting the amount (your RDI) of protein is also the type that you are consuming. That is, you need to make sure you are getting “complete proteins” from your diet.

What does “complete protein” refer to, you ask? As shared previously, protein consists of smaller components called amino acids (12 manufactured by the body and nine essential amino acids needed from food). A complete protein refers to a protein that contains all of the nine essential amino acids.

Types of complete proteins are animal proteins (including red meat, seafood, poultry, dairy, and eggs). So if you are a meat eater, you are sure to consume complete proteins daily. However, for lactating women who are vegetarian or vegan, it is a little trickier as there are only a few non-animal sources that constitute complete proteins. These include soybeans, quinoa, and buckwheat.

You don't have to eat a plate of burgers t get the protein that you need 

Another option to ensure you are eating your fill of complete proteins is to combine two or more incomplete proteins to make up a complete protein. You can either consume the incomplete proteins together in one meal or eat a combination throughout the same day. Some examples of incomplete food combinations that work include:

  • Beans + nuts or seeds: salad topped with chickpeas and sunflower seeds + hummus
  • Beans + whole grains: hummus on pita bread, rice and red beans, chickpea and quinoa patties on a whole-wheat bun,
  • Whole grains + nuts or seeds: almond butter on whole wheat crackers, peanut butter on whole grain toast

2 General nutritional guidelines to maintain health while breastfeeding

When you are breastfeeding, a diet that is rich in protein, iron and calcium will make sure that you and bub are getting the supply of nutrients you both need. Your body requires a constant supply of nutrients to maintain, grow, rebuild, and provide energy. As an added bonus, eating a healthy and varied diet will make sure that your newborn is exposed to lots of different tastes which could be useful later on down the track when you introduce solid foods.

Our bodies need the right balance of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fats) in order to function effectively and this is most definitely the case for lactation. If you consume too much or too little of one or more macronutrients, and do not have the right balance, your bodily processes can be affected. This is where some women fall short and it is often overlooked as a cause of low milk supply – they do not pay attentions to the types of foods they are eating when breastfeeding.

When you eat well, your baby eats better too

As a nursing mother, you should "eat to hunger" and learn to trust your hunger as your body’s way of telling you to consume more calories. This may equal around 500 calories above your intake before pregnancy. You can expect to feel hungrier when nursing, especially if you are highly active. 

1 Quick Health Tips

Remember, you will need extra nutrient dense foods and additional fluid intake – both are important to the production of a constant breast milk supply. This means regular nutrition-packed meals, balanced meals, and no skipping meals (or this will leave you feeling fatigued and low in mood). Lactating women should consume around 3 litres of water daily. Where possible, drink extra fluids and avoid caffeine and sugary drinks. 

Strict or restricted weight loss programs are generally not recommended when breastfeeding. In saying that, breastfeeding helps aid weight loss. Also, by eating nutritious foods and eating “to hunger” it is likely you will naturally experience a gradual weight loss. Also, by exercising daily you should have no need to worry about weight issues.

Keep hydrated, and always have a bottle of water on hand.

Certain babies have intolerances to some foods ingested by their mother, passed through to the breast milk. Such foods that can cause poor tolerance include spicy food, chocolate, and caffeine. If your baby becomes fussy or irritable, you may need to give thought to the foods you have eaten in the past 24 hours.

One last note, you should protect your baby by avoiding alcohol and nicotine as these substances are passed through breast milk. This is similar to how the substances were passed through the placenta throughout pregnancy. Also, you need to be careful when it comes to medications and always inform your health care provider that you are breastfeeding if medicine is being prescribed.

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