It’s no secret that the food we eat fuels our daily activities — an especially important point when those daily activities include caring for a newborn and breastfeeding.

But for many new mamas, the desire to lose the baby weight may take precedence over nourishing their body with the right foods to support recovery, milk production, rest, and all the other tasks required to get through the day.

Significantly reducing overall carbohydrate intake — the go-to weight loss strategy for many women — is not your best bet postpartum. Carbohydrates are necessary for new moms — not just for breast milk production, but also for mental health, hormone regulation and more.

The good news it is possible to slowly shed a few pounds (if that’s your goal!) while still eating enough calories to keep up with the physical and mental demands of caring for your little one. The key is to be patient, eat well-rounded meals, and give yourself time.

Choose a wide variety of foods from all food groups

During the postpartum period, focus on filling up on healthy sources of:

  • protein
  • fruit
  • vegetables
  • fiber-rich carbs
  • fats like avocados, nuts, and seeds

Keep in mind that caloric intake and appropriate macronutrient ranges vary depending on your activity levels, body size, and more.

Plus, if you have a health condition like diabetes, you may need to follow a different dietary pattern in order to optimize blood sugar control. Every woman’s nutrition needs are different and depend on many factors

For more information on how to create a healthy plate, visit the USDA ChooseMyPlate website. There, you will find topics related to nutritional needs, healthy weight loss, breastfeeding tips, and more. You can also get a customized eating plan.

Stay hydrated all day long

Dara Godfrey, MS, RD, registered dietician for Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York, says hydration, especially if breastfeeding, is critical. She recommends up to 3 liters of water daily.

However, hydration needs can vary so it’s best to let thirst be your guide. A good way to gauge hydration is looking at the color of your urine. Pale yellow urine indicates proper hydration while dark-colored urine indicates that you may be dehydrated and need to up your water intake

Keep an eye on your calories

Fueling your body with the right amount of calories will help keep your energy and milk supply up.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a breastfeeding mother should consume approximately 2,300 to 2,500 calories per day compared to 1,800 to 2,000 calories for a non-breastfeeding woman.

However, individual calorie needs are highly variable and depend on body size, age, activity level, and how much you’re breastfeeding.

Remember weight loss is ideally slow and gradual

If you’re trying to lose weight while breastfeeding, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says a slow weight loss of 1 pound per week or 4 pounds per month is ideal.

Continue prenatal vitamins

Breastfeeding mothers should continue taking a prenatal vitamin, or a vitamin specific to postnatal mothers. If you’re not breastfeeding but would like the additional nutrients, talk to your doctor for recommendations.

Curb your caffeine intake

While the small amount of caffeine that passes from you to the baby through breast milk is not known to adversely affect your infant, the CDC recommends sticking to 300 milligrams or less per day.

Minimize empty calories

Aim to minimize snack foods and items that are high in added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, including fried foods, soft drinks, and desserts.

Avoid fish high in mercury

If you’re breastfeeding, avoid high-mercury seafood and fish like orange roughy, tuna, king mackerel, marlin, shark, swordfish, or tilefish. Instead, opt for salmon, shrimp, cod, tilapia, trout, and halibut, among others.

Limit alcohol while breastfeeding

Although many women decide to avoid alcohol while breastfeeding, if you choose to drink, do so in moderation, and try to limit it to after breastfeeding or wait 2 to 3 hours after having a drink to breastfeed.

Exclusively breastfeeding women require approximately 400 to 500 additional calories per day beyond what is recommended for those who are not breastfeeding, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

If you’re nursing, don’t fret if the pounds don’t come off right away. For some women, breastfeeding helps them lose baby weight more quickly than non-breastfeeding mothers.

Research has shown that although weight loss is slower during the first 3 months of breastfeeding due to new moms increasing calorie intake to meet the demands of producing milk, weight loss seems to increase after the 3-month mark when lactating moms are more likely to burn fat stores.

Other women may notice increased fat stores on their hips or legs until breastfeeding stops. This is likely because, as studies have shown, breast milk draws from lower body maternal fat stores in order to support infant brain development.

To keep your milk supply up and nourish your body, it’s critical to focus on consuming whole food sources of:

  • healthy fats
  • proteins
  • carbohydrates

For example, eggs and fatty fish are excellent sources of protein and healthy fats while vegetables, whole grains, and fruits provide fiber-rich carb sources. Nuts, seeds, avocados, and full-fat yogurt are more examples of healthy fat sources.

Not only are these foods a great source of protein, fat, and carbs, but these whole foods are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help promote overall health.

Breast milk is generally composed of 87 percent water, 3.8 percent fat, 1.0 percent protein, and 7 percent lactose. Amazingly, even if your daily nutrient intake doesn’t meet recommended amounts, your milk will still provide sufficient nutrition for your baby.

That doesn’t mean you should cut back on necessary carbohydrates, protein or fat, however. Doing so will just leave you more depleted and run down as your body uses everything it can to make milk for your baby.

While general nutrition recommendations suggest that complex carbohydrates should make up about 45 to 64 percent of your daily caloric intake when breastfeeding, it’s important to tailor your diet based on factors like overall health and activity levels.

Women who have high blood sugar may need to eat fewer carbs to optimize blood sugar control, while highly active women may need more. It’s important to work with your healthcare team to come up with an individualized plan that meets your nutrient demands while optimizing overall health.

There are many ways to help your hormones recalibrate postpartum, says Godfrey, but it does take time, and we shouldn’t expect it to happen overnight.

“There is usually an estrogen dominance in comparison to progesterone, and since it takes almost a year to have a baby, it should take time for your body to find its new normal,” she explains.

Estrogen dominance can play a big role in whether you are able to successfully lose weight postpartum, because excess estrogen can lead to weight gain. So can high levels of cortisol — the stress hormone, which is made in excess when you’re not getting enough sleep.

Godfrey reminds women that everyone’s postpartum hormone timeline will vary, and that’s OK. She points out that hormones can be influenced by many things including diet, sleep patterns (or lack of sleep!), and overall stress.

“Food can affect the production and secretion of hormones — the hormone insulin is secreted with detection of carbohydrate consumption, so choosing portion sizes that are right for our body can help ensure a healthy secretion of insulin, and help us prevent unnecessary weight gain,” says Godfrey.

She also explains that hormones can, in turn, influence our food choices: ghrelin, our “hunger” hormone, and leptin, the “I’m satisfied” hormone.

Because of this, Godfrey recommends the following:

  • Couple protein with moderate carbohydrate consumption to help prevent blood sugars from elevating too quickly, thus preventing your pancreas from being overwhelmed to produce insulin.
  • Choose fewer processed, packaged foods, and focus on whole foods that are rich in protein, fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats.
  • Continue prenatal vitamin routine for up to a year to help support hormone and vitamin/mineral balance.
  • Try to carve out time for some activity/exercise. Walking, yoga, Pilates, swimming can all be great choices.

Carbohydrates are a key macronutrient during postpartum period, namely because carbs increase serotonin secretion.

Serotonin is one of the most critical neurotransmitters in the brain, when it comes to maintaining mental health. While you can’t eat foods that contain serotonin, you can eat foods high in tryptophan. Tryptophan can be converted to serotonin, but only if carbohydrates are present to do the work.

On the opposite end of the serotonin spectrum is protein. Ashley Shaw, RD at Preg Appetit! says protein decreases serotonin secretion. Therefore, it’s necessary to balance moderate carbohydrate intake with protein. “This is part of a feedback system that helps regulate the body and causes the body to crave certain foods at a certain time for adequate intake of different nutrients.”

She continues, “Unfortunately, if you consistently over-consume carbohydrates, especially simple carbs (refined grains and bread, sweets, baked goods), you tend to crave these foods more than others, and the feedback system gets thrown off,” she explains.

That’s why experts recommend eating a diet that is centered around complex carbohydrates such as fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, brown and wild rice, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, beans, quinoa, and potatoes.

Meal planning often takes a back seat when you’re caring for a newborn. The good news? We’ve got plenty of ideas for you! Here’s a 3-day menu from Shaw that will keep you fueled and nourished all day.

Godfrey suggests a postpartum diet similar to what she encourages pregnant women to eat, especially when breastfeeding. This includes:

  • Predominantly whole foods — lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, good quality proteins (eggs, chicken, fish, seafood, nuts/seeds, organic tofu, full-fat dairy).
  • Whole sources of carbohydrates like fruit, whole grains, and starchy vegetables and pairing carb sources with filling, protein-rich foods like eggs, chicken, beans, nuts, and seeds.
  • Healthy fats to help with satiety, but focus on portion sizes that promote health and prevent added weight gain.

She also suggests the following guidelines when planning meals:

  • Include healthy protein sources at each meal.
  • Include vegetables in at least two meals.
  • Start your day with fiber in conjunction with protein for the perfect combo of energy and sustenance (plus, fiber can help with post-labor constipation).
  • Eat foods rich in nutrients like vitamin C, zinc, and selenium to help keep your immune system strong.

Eating a healthy postpartum diet is a key factor in recovering from pregnancy and childbirth as well as losing weight — if that’s your goal.

Before you make any significant tweaks to your current diet though, take some time to just enjoy the gift of being a new mom. Allow room for recovery. Be kind to yourself. Move your body when it feels right. Rest when you need to.

Weight loss should not be your main priority those first few weeks home. You’ll know when the time is right. When you’re ready to begin your postpartum weight loss journey, remember that significantly reducing the amount of carbohydrates in your diet may do more harm than good.

Take it slow, and eat for hormone regulation, mental health, and sustained energy. The weight will come off eventually, and you’ll feel much better in the meantime.