Higher fat, rather than high-carb, diet appears to have benefits for nursing mothers and their babies

Partly because I have never and am never going to breastfeed, I am wary about advocating it. I do genuinely believe that women who want to benefit should be given every available support and encouragement. On the other hand, if a woman chooses not to breastfeed or cannot breastfeed for some reason, then as a culture we should be able to allow this situation without judgement or criticism.

While it’s clearly not for everyone, I do believe that, overall, there are compelling reasons to believe that breastfeeding trumps formula feeding. Back in 2006 I reviewed the evidence for the benefits (for both mother and child) here. Near the bottom of this piece I cited some research which links breastfeeding with lower maternal body weight after birth. This provides at least some evidence for the notion that women who breastfeed are more likely to attain their pre-pregnancy weight than women who bottle feed their babies.

However, if a mother is to breastfeed, what would be the best diet for her to eat?

This question was partially answered by a study which is in press at the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition [1]. In this study, two different diets were tested on a group of breastfeeding women at two different times. One diet was relatively high in carbohydrate and low in fat (60 and 25 per cent carb and fat respectively), while the other was relatively low in carb and high in fat (30 and 55 per cent of carb and fat respectively). Each diet was trialled for 8 days. The diets provided very similar levels of calories (about 1800 cals per day).

A number of assessments and measurements were taken during the course of the study. The most notable findings concerning milk production were these:

During the high fat diet, while milk volume was not different to during the high carb diet, the amount of energy supplied by the milk was significantly higher.

This increase in energy was due to a higher concentration of fat in the milk.

This may have particular importance to brain and nervous system development, as certain fats (such as arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) are thought to play a critical role here.

Turning our attention to the maternal health for a moment, the higher fat diet also led to higher fat metabolism in the mother. Overall, there was a greater ‘energy deficit’ (calories in minus calories out) than when women were eating the higher carb diet too.

Here again, we appear to have evidence that not all calories are created equal when it comes to the impact they have on our metabolism and, potentially, body weight. This study also suggests that a higher fat diet leads to the production of nutritionally superior breast milk. The bottom line is that we have some evidence here that compared to a high-carb diet, a high-fat one may well have benefits for both nursing mother and child.

References:

1. Mohammad MA, et al. Effect of dietary macronutrient composition under moderate hypocaloric intake on maternal adaptation during lactation. Am J Clin Nutr (22 April 2009).

9 Responses to Higher fat, rather than high-carb, diet appears to have benefits for nursing mothers and their babies

  1. simona 8 May 2009 at 2:40 pm #

    Not only that is necessary to eat a diet higher in fat, but care should be taken regarding the important vitamins and minerals for the production of milk and the healthy growth of the fetus. Vit D!, K, A, all fat soluble, should form a part of the diet, from quality fats (grass fed animals) No need to mention the omega 3s. On the other hand, the mother should lower her toxic load (babies get born with toxic chemicals in their system!) maybe even months before conceiving by not using the usual cosmetic products full of chemicals that might affect her fertility and that of the child or cleaning products in the house, VOC from paints, furniture, mercury from new fillings, particulates from car pollution, etc. Some women nowadays in these highly individualistic and selfish times do not want to bear the responsibility for the health of their child and of their offspring, do not want to feel guilty and choose not to consider these facts as it would affect their daily routine too much.

    Check the Weston A. Price foundation if interested.

    Not being able to breastfeed or choosing not to breastfeed because of tiredness or lazyness is different. I wish I could breastfeed my children for longer but they stopped at about 8 months and 1 year respectively.

  2. Olivia 8 May 2009 at 3:50 pm #

    Thanks goodness more research about what to eat when breastfeeding! I could find so little when I started breastfeeding and it seemed so critical at the time when one is bombarded with opinions from everywoman and her dog. Most of which I ignored but I did find the Australian Breastfeeding Association webste (although I live in Africa and am British) really helpful. If I remember correctly they seemed to suggest that avoiding too much wheat and dairy was a good idea when one has a colicky baby. I had a difficult time for various reasons but although I would quite like a medal for waiting until baby was 2years 3 months before finally forcing her off my boobs- I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Breastfeeding and parenting technique can be very polarising and I am no longer in touch with an old friend because our approaches were so different and our feelings so sensitive that is was easier to let the friendship slide. But nutrition and effect of the brastfeeding mothers diet on the baby’s digestion etc, well the general percieved wisdom needs an overhaul.

  3. Maureen MINCHIN 8 May 2009 at 5:16 pm #

    Simona is right to advocate good nutrition and avoidance of toxics for pregnant and lactating women. But this too often is seen as a ‘reason’ to not breastfeed. So instead we use fallible bacterially-contaminated industrially-produced multi-mix products that carry a far wider variety of nasty chemicals (oestrogen disruptors, heavy metals, plasticisers etc etc) than breastmilk; and providing the wrong types and amounts of protein with highly variable mixture of fats, some made by GM soil fungi and marine algae – all while lacking the thousands of components that interact positively with the developing child’s body. These artificial mixtures – very imprecise and ever changing ‘formulas’ – increase the risk of everything from DNA damage to diabetes and obesity, reduced cognitive potential, rejected transplants and CVD risk in later life – both for infants AND their bottle feeding mothers. The industry that brought us Vioxx et al also brings us formula: why are we so uncritically accepting? Dear Dr Briffa, learn more about formula, and you will be making strenuous efforts to see that women are enabled to breastfeed, so saving zillions of tax dollars. Prof Peter Hartmann has called infant formula the tobacco of the 21st century. Read Breastfeeding Matters to learn more about that largest uncontrolled in vivo experiment in human history, artificial feeding. Just like alcohol abuse, artificial feeding is a public health issue that should not be encouraged by those with access to knowledge of its harms. 100 years of advertising has created a society that depends on bottle feeding, but we can create a society where all human babies get human milk, if we value it properly, and publicise the whole truth about alternatives. Every baby deserves the breast (or breastmilk from a milkbank).

  4. Antje 8 May 2009 at 6:42 pm #

    Breastfeeding women on merely 1800 calories a day?

  5. Dr John Briffa 8 May 2009 at 6:49 pm #

    Antje

    Yes, both diets were deliberately ‘hypocaloric’.

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