When it comes to postpartum nutrition, you might be surprised to learn that nutrient needs in new moms—particularly breastfeeding moms—are higher than while you were pregnant.
Technically, you’re still growing a baby. Your baby is just outside of the womb. That means nourishing yourself should remain a huge priority.
Plus, depending on the circumstances of your labor and delivery, it may feel like you’ve run a marathon (or two). You absolutely need to replenish your energy and take in additional nutrients to account for blood loss and wound healing (particularly if you’ve had a perineal tear or a surgical birth).
Even in an uncomplicated delivery, your body undergoes significant changes as your uterus shrinks down to its pre-pregnancy size, your connective tissues adapt, your breasts begin producing milk (whether or not you choose to breastfeed), and your skin regains elasticity.
Across the board, traditional cultures put a heavy emphasis on postpartum nutrition. Though there are clear regional differences in cuisine, one thing is clear: animal products are a mainstay. From rich bone broths to organ meats, from seafood to eggs, our ancestors understood that the nutrients found in these foods were extremely important for healing and milk production in new moms. The second commonality is that “warming” foods are encouraged. Yes, this includes steamy broths, herbal teas, and porridges, but it also includes recipes with warming spices, like cinnamon and ginger.
Postpartum Food Traditions Around the World
In China, yang foods are considered warming, while yin foods are cooling. In the immediate postpartum period, a woman is considered to be in a yin state and must rebalance her system by eating more yang foods. Rich bone broths and soups are a must.
Other foods considered helpful in postpartum healing include pork, chicken, organ meats, rice, eggs, sesame seed oil, ginger, ginseng, herbal teas, and rice wine. A research paper describing postpartum traditions in China reports, “Meat is served every day, usually rotating between chicken, pork, pig liver and kidney.”
According to some reports from Southwest China, women are encouraged to eat 8-10 eggs per day to enhance milk production and boost brain development of her infant. At the same time, cooling yin foods are discouraged, especially raw vegetables and fruits, cold liquids, and even plain water (warm herbal tea is given instead). Some cooked vegetables are permitted, such as Chinese kale, mushrooms, carrots, and string beans (though this varies based on the report).
In India, emphasis is also placed on warming foods including whole milk (heated before serving), ghee (clarified butter), nuts, ginger, and jagerry (unrefined sugar). Among Malaysian Indians of South Indian descent, dishes made with shark, sting-ray, chicken, and salted fish are emphasized as well as spicy curries. At the same time, cold foods, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, are avoided.
In Mexico, soups and warming beverages are also on the menu. Brothy chicken soup with onions, garlic, and cilantro is a common postpartum recovery meal. Hot chocolate and atole, a thick, sweetened beverage made with masa (corn), milk, and cinnamon are given to encourage milk production.
In the Amazon state of Pará, the ideal food for the first week postpartum is boiled chicken; after this week, a broader variety of foods are permitted, including game meat, certain fish, acai berries, manioc (a starchy tuber), rice, and beans. Aside from acai berries, fruit is strictly avoided for the first 40 days.
In Korea, new mothers are often served a special seaweed soup called miyukkuk. In Cambodia, warm rice porridge and a rich dish called khaw is served, which is braised beef, pork or fish with salt, pepper and palm sugar. Warming beverages are served (like herbal tea and homemade wine), while cold, sour, and raw foods are avoided.
In Northern Nigeria, women eat a porridge made of groundnuts (peanuts) and rice that’s enriched with local salt. Spicy foods are also emphasized. In South Africa, high-protein foods are encouraged, while cold foods are avoided as they are believed to reduce milk production.
Nutritional Rationale Behind Traditional Healing Foods
In many ways, the foods emphasized in traditional cultures make perfect sense. When you’re recovering from pregnancy and birth, there are tremendous shifts going on internally.
Healing tissues that have been stretched, torn or cut (to put it bluntly) require plenty of protein, especially the amino acids glycine and proline, which your body uses to make collagen.
These are found in abundance in the connective tissues, bones, and skin of animal foods. Electrolytes and fluids are crucial to replace those lost during labor. All of these nutrients are found in bone broth and any slow-cooked stews, soups, and curries that incorporate animal foods.
If you’ve lost a significant amount of blood, replenishing with red meat and organ meats, especially liver and heart, would provide high amounts of easily absorbed iron and vitamin B12. Foods such as eggs and seafood would provide additional protein along with iodine, B-vitamins, zinc, choline, DHA and a variety of other nutrients that help speed healing and also enrich breast milk.
Postpartum Nutrition: What Should You Eat?
For the most part, you can continue eating the same nutrient-dense diet you consumed during pregnancy through the postpartum phase. The most important point is that you’ll need more calories, which means more food all around. Breastfeeding mothers, especially, find themselves ravenously hungry in the early weeks.
It’s estimated that exclusively breastfeeding mothers burn an additional 500 calories per day for the first 6 months postpartum. If you’re listening to your hunger cues (and have enough help to bring food to you when needed), you’ll be just fine.
It’s actually quite easy to accidentally under-eat during this phase, especially if you don’t have someone preparing food for you (did I mention newborns are demanding of your time and attention?), so I can’t emphasize enough the importance of arranging help preparing meals, having pre-made freezer meals at the ready, and also stashing snacks around the house where you plan to feed your baby and rest.
Below are postpartum nutrition foods that incorporate the wisdom of traditional cultures and the best of modern nutrition research. The goal here is to replenish your nutrient stores, heal from birth, and provide enough nourishment for breastfeeding.
Foods to Enhance Postpartum Recovery
● Soups, hearty stews, and curries made with bone broth. These warming comfort foods supply collagen-building amino acids, electrolytes, and many micronutrients. You can find recipes for bone broth, chicken & vegetable soup, coconut chicken curry, and carnitas in Real Food for Pregnancy.
● High-iron foods, such as slow-cooked meat (think pot roast or pulled pork) and organ meats, such as liver, kidney, and heart. You can hide liver in many recipes, as I do in chili, meatloaf, shepherd’s pie, and meatballs.
● High-fat foods, like pork, butter/ghee, fatty fish, nuts/seeds, etc. My nutty “granola” bars, spinach dip, and maple pots de creme in the make great postpartum snacks (recipes in Real Food for Pregnancy).
● Foods rich in omega-3 fats, such as seafood, eggs, and grass-fed beef from a sustainable source. Try grilled salmon, salmon cakes, or spinach quiche.
● Iodine-rich foods, such as seafood or seaweed-infused broths (this can be as simple as adding a piece of dried kombu to your batch of bone broth). Roasted nori “seaweed snacks” are a convenient option.
● Soft-cooked vegetables (instead of raw veggies or salads).
● Well-cooked grains/starches, such as oatmeal, rice, or sweet potatoes (eaten alongside plenty of fat and protein to provide enough energy and stabilize your blood sugar).
● Plenty of warm liquids, like broths and teas (such as herbal lactation teas). A good rule of thumb is to aim for 1 oz of fluids per ¾-1 pound of body weight (110-150 oz per day if you weigh 150 lbs). If you’re nursing, have a glass of water or some herbal tea every time you nurse.