According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mothers should exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first 6 months before introducing complementary foods and continue breastfeeding up to the age of 2 years or more. It’s natural to gain weight during pregnancy but in most cases, women lose at least half of this excess baby weight within 6 weeks of childbirth.
Women who want to lose their baby weight often turn to fad diets that promise quick weight loss but this could pose a problem to their health and the health of their babies. Recently, intermittent fasting has gained popularity as a safe and effective method to lose weight which has breastfeeding moms wondering if they can use this type of diet to shed their baby weight.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is the term used to describe meal timing schedules that alternate between fasting (or severely reduced calorie intake) and non-fasting over a given period. There are 3 types of intermittent fasting – alternate-day fasting, periodic fasting, and time-restricted eating. As the name suggests, alternate-day fasting involves between one day of eating normally and one day of not eating at all or eating less than 25% of your calorie requirement.
Alternate day fasting is the strictest and the most popular form of intermittent fasting. With periodic fasting, a person fasts for 2 or more days in any given week, although the days of fasting are generally not consecutive days. Time-restricted eating means that a person will only eat during a specific 8- to 12-hour window and fast for the remaining 12 to 16 hours.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), intermittent fasting can provide a wide range of health benefits including weight loss, reduced insulin resistance, and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
The Risks of Intermittent Fasting while Breastfeeding
There are very few studies on the effects of intermittent fasting while breastfeeding. However, most of the existing research indicates that intermittent fasting can affect the quality and quantity of breast milk. Typically, breastfeeding mothers require 1800-2200 calories per day in order to maintain an abundant milk supply.
A sudden drop in calorie intake can decrease the quantity of milk produced. Similarly, a study on the effects of intermittent fasting on the quality of breast milk found that intermittent fasting caused significant reduction in several micronutrients including potassium, magnesium and zinc in breast milk. This is why health experts do not recommend intermittent fasting for breastfeeding mothers.
Breast milk contains everything a baby requires for healthy growth and development. Breast milk contains a wide range of nutrients including protein, fats, carbs, vitamins, minerals and amino acids. It also contains antibodies and enzymes that help to strengthen your baby’s immunity and reduce his risk of falling ill.
Most importantly, breast milk contains growth factors such as the Epidermal growth factor (EGF) and insulinlike growth factor-I (IGF-I) that are necessary for the healthy development of your baby’s blood vessels, nervous system, glands and intestines. The science concerning the effects of intermittent fasting while breastfeeding is still in the preliminary stages but evidence indicates that it could result in nutritional deficits. Studies show that early nutritional deficits are linked to the long-term impairment of physical and mental development.
Safe Alternatives to Intermittent Fasting when Breastfeeding
It is important to discuss your daily diet plan with your doctor before you make any changes. Your doctor is the most qualified person to suggest safe alternatives to intermittent fasting according to your current health status. If your daily calorie intake is more than the recommended amount, you can use these methods to help bring your diet back on track:
Increase your protein intake
Studies show that breastfeeding moms should increase their protein intake by approximately 20 grams per day. This means that you should include 2-3 servings of protein in your daily diet in order to meet the recommended protein requirement of 65 grams. One of the benefits of increasing your protein intake is that you are likely to feel full a lot quicker which means you are less likely to overeat. This is because protein increases satiety to a greater extent than fats or carbs.
Eat at a slower pace
According to researchers, it takes 20 minutes from the time you start eating for you to feel satiated and satisfied. This is why people who eat quickly tend to consume too many calories. Eating quickly also reduces the amount of time you spend chewing your food which, in turn, has a negative impact on digestion. Mindful eating will help you eat at a slower pace, reduce your calorie intake, improve digestion and reduce your risk of problems such as acidity and bloating.
Skip processed foods that are high in carbs
Processed foods such as white bread, bagels, pasta, chips, sodas and juices are high in carbs and calories. These foods are linked to weight gain as well as diabetes and heart disease. Colas are particularly unhealthy as a single 12-oz can of coke contains 9.75 teaspoons of sugar – this is more than the recommended limit of 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day for women. Homemade flavored water, lemonade or green tea is a healthier alternative to colas. Similarly, you can swap chips for a small bowl of assorted nuts and dried fruit.
It is best to avoid restrictive diet plans for at least the first 6 months of breastfeeding or until you introduce solid foods to your baby’s diet. Any diet plan that is very restrictive can have long term negative effects on your baby’s health if you are still breastfeeding.
For instance, animal studies indicate that the keto diet increases the risk of ketoacidosis during lactation and causes significant alterations to neonatal brain structure, resulting in retarded physiological growth. If you want to follow the keto diet after weaning your child off breast milk, make sure that you discuss the potential benefits and risks of the keto diet with your doctor before you proceed.