Postpartum Nutrition for Recovery & Mental Health

Pregnancy is a demanding time for nutrition and childbirth leaves our body in need to nutrition more than ever, for recovery, stamina, and resilience during one of the most difficult times of a woman’s life. Breastfeeding or not, a healthy diet will play a central role in how quickly you heal, how much energy you have, and your mental well being.

Postpartum is a critical period for women, as their bodies recover from childbirth and they transition into breastfeeding and caring for a newborn. During this time, it is important for postpartum women to prioritize their nutritional needs to support their recovery, maintain energy levels, and meet the demands of breastfeeding.

I write this as I am less than 6 weeks out from the due date for my second baby, and reflect on how it was after having my son, who is now 7. A little scared, and with high hopes that a better understanding of nutrition this time round will make a big difference, I write this just as much for myself as for you, reader.

Welcoming a new life into the world is a transformative experience for women, both physically and emotionally. Hormones are in a whirlwind. Sleep is scarce. Much of what keeps us feeling good normally is compromised. It is important to focus on taking care of yourself, your baby, and putting the other stuff on the back burner.

It’s during this crucial phase that prioritizing your nutritional needs becomes paramount. In this blog post, we will explore the importance of postpartum nutrition and its impact on your overall well-being, drawing insights from recent studies and research.

Postpartum Diet Quality Can Easily Suffer, but a Little Preparation Goes a Long Way

Keep things simple postpartum. If you can get some meal prepping in before the baby comes that is a bonus. Think freezer friendly recipes, meals you can roast on a sheet pan with parchment paper on it for easy clean up, and minimally processed convenience foods.

Here are some examples of easy-to-prepare whole foods that require minimal cooking or preparation:

  • Fresh fruits: Apples, bananas, oranges, berries, grapes, and melons are nutritious and can be eaten as is.
  • Raw vegetables: Carrot sticks, cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, and bell pepper strips can be enjoyed as a snack or paired with hummus or yogurt dip.
  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds provide healthy fats and protein and can be eaten as a snack or added to salads or yogurt.
  • Greek yogurt: High in protein, Greek yogurt can be enjoyed plain or topped with fruits, nuts, or granola for added flavor and texture.
  • Avocado: Simply slice or mash avocado and enjoy it on whole-grain toast, in salads, or as a creamy addition to wraps or sandwiches.
  • Hummus: This versatile dip made from chickpeas is great with raw vegetables, whole-grain crackers, or as a spread in sandwiches and wraps.
  • Canned tuna or salmon: These can be easily mixed with a little mayo or Greek yogurt, along with some herbs and spices, to make a quick and protein-packed tuna or salmon salad.
  • Hard-boiled eggs: Cook a batch of hard-boiled eggs and keep them in the refrigerator for a convenient snack or to add protein to salads or sandwiches.
  • Whole-grain bread or wraps: Look for bread or wraps made with whole grains for a nutritious base to build sandwiches or wraps.
  • Pre-cut and pre-washed salad greens: These make it quick and easy to assemble a fresh salad. Just add your favorite toppings and a healthy dressing.
  • Quinoa: This versatile grain cooks quickly and can be used as a base for salads, stir-fries, or as a side dish.
  • Frozen vegetables: Frozen vegetables are pre-cut and require minimal preparation. They can be steamed, sautéed, or added to soups and stews.
  • Canned beans: Rinse and drain canned beans to add to salads, soups, or make a simple bean salad with some olive oil, lemon juice, and herbs.
  • Peanut butter: Spread it on whole-grain bread or use it as a dip for apple slices or celery sticks.
  • Sunflower seed butter or seeds: These are a good source of zinc, adequate levels of which may help reduce anxiety and depression
  • Overnight oats: Combine rolled oats, milk or yogurt, and your choice of toppings (such as fruits, nuts, and seeds) in a jar and refrigerate overnight for a quick and nutritious breakfast.

These are just a few examples of easy-to-prepare whole foods. Remember to choose a variety of foods from different food groups to ensure a well-balanced and nutritious diet.

Postpartum diet quality plays a crucial role in her overall health and well-being, but the stress and challenges of balancing child care, returning to work, and meal preparation means food quality can suffer. This is a time when women are more likely to have a higher intake of ultra-processed foods and lower overall diet quality. As a postpartum mother, it’s essential to be mindful of the types of foods you consume and prioritize whole, unprocessed foods that are rich in nutrients.

The postpartum period is also characterized by a complex interplay of emotions, self-image, and eating habits. These emotional and psychological aspects of postpartum nutrition cannot be overlooked. Recognizing and addressing the emotional aspects of nutrition can contribute to a healthier and more balanced approach to postpartum eating.

Throughout this blog post, we will provide practical tips and guidance on how to nourish your body and mind during the postpartum period. From understanding your increased calorie and protein needs to exploring the importance of hydration, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and essential vitamins and minerals, you can feel empowered with the knowledge and tools to make informed choices that support your well-being.

Remember, as a new mother, taking care of yourself is not a luxury but a necessity. By prioritizing your nutrition and overall well-being, you’ll be better equipped to embrace the joys and challenges of motherhood. Let’s embark on this journey together and explore the transformative power of postpartum nutrition.

Nutritional Needs for Postpartum Women

Here are some key nutritional needs for postpartum women:

  1. Calories: Postpartum women typically require additional calories to support breastfeeding and recovery. The exact calorie needs vary based on factors such as body weight, activity level, and individual metabolism. It is recommended to consume an additional 300-500 calories per day above pre-pregnancy needs. Delay an focus on weight loss until you’ve had time to heal.
  2. Protein: Protein is crucial for tissue repair and recovery. Postpartum women should aim for adequate protein intake, approximately 71 grams per day or more, to support healing and provide building blocks for breast milk production. Good sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, dairy products, nuts, and seeds. You may also be interesting in my post about protein powders.
    • Here are some examples of food portions that contain approximately 15-20 grams of protein:
      • Chicken breast: 3.5 ounces (about the size of a deck of cards) ~20g protein
      • Salmon: 3.5 ounces (about the size of a checkbook) ~20g protein
      • Greek yogurt: 1 cup ~17g protein
      • Tofu: 4 ounces of firm tofu ~22g protein
      • Ground beef (lean): 3 ounces (about the size of a bar of soap) ~20g protein
      • Black beans: 1 cup (cooked) ~15g protein
      • Chickpeas: 1 cup (cooked) ~14.5g protein
      • Eggs: 3 large eggs ~18g protein
      • Edamame: 1 cup (shelled) ~18g protein
      • Turkey breast: 3.5 ounces (about the size of a deck of cards) ~20g protein
      • Quorn meatless grounds: 1 cup ~15g protein
      • Cottage cheese: 1 cup ~25g protein
      • Lentils: 1 cup (cooked) ~18g protein.
  3. Hydration: Staying adequately hydrated is essential for postpartum women, especially if they are breastfeeding. Aim to drink plenty of water throughout the day to support milk production and overall health. Thirst is not always a reliable indicator of hydration, so it’s important to drink fluids regularly.
  4. Iron: Iron stores can become depleted during childbirth and postpartum. It is important to replenish iron levels to prevent anemia. Iron-rich foods such as lean meats, poultry, fish, legumes, leafy green vegetables, and fortified cereals can help meet the increased iron needs.
  5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are important for brain development in newborns and also support postpartum mood and well-being. Include sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as fatty fish (e.g., salmon, trout), chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts in the diet. It’s a good time to supplement as well, as is during pregnancy.
  6. Vitamins and Minerals: Continue taking a prenatal vitamin or a postnatal multivitamin to ensure adequate intake of essential vitamins and minerals, such as folate, vitamin D, calcium, zinc and others.

It’s important to note that individual nutritional needs can vary, and it is recommended to consult with a healthcare professional, such as a doctor or registered dietitian, for personalized guidance and advice tailored to your specific needs and circumstances.

A few more specific and often overlooked nutrients to be aware of during the postpartum period are iodine, vitamin D, tryptophan (an amino acid/protein), and folate.

Iodine Needs Increase with Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding women have increased iodine requirements to support their own health as well as the optimal development of their infants. The recommended daily intake of iodine for breastfeeding women is higher than that for non-pregnant, non-lactating women.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the recommended daily intake of iodine for breastfeeding women is 250 micrograms (mcg) per day. This recommendation ensures that an adequate amount of iodine is transferred to the infant through breast milk, promoting healthy growth and development. Other organizations such as the American Thyroid Association, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and various national health authorities also provide similar recommendations regarding iodine intake during breastfeeding.

Iodine requirements can vary depending on factors such as the individual’s iodine status, geographical location, and dietary habits. Some regions may have iodine-deficient soils, leading to lower iodine content in locally produced foods. In such cases, healthcare professionals may recommend higher iodine supplementation or the consumption of iodine-rich foods.

Iodine Needs for Postpartum Women

The recommended daily intake of iodine for non-pregnant, non-lactating women, including postpartum women who are not breastfeeding, is around 150 micrograms (mcg) per day for adults. Deficiency in postpartum women can contribute to hypothyroidism, leaving women feeling wiped out, bloated, and depressed. Iodine is an important part of fetal development as well as development of motor and cognitive skills in infants and children, so meeting needs remains critically important for breastfeeding mothers.

Food Sources of Iodine

Several foods contain iodine naturally or are fortified with iodine. Here are some examples of iodine-rich foods and their approximate portions:

  1. Seafood: Seafood is generally considered a good source of iodine. Some iodine-rich seafood options include:
    • Seaweed (kelp, nori): 1 gram of dried seaweed
    • Cod: 3 ounces (85 grams) of cooked cod
    • Tuna: 3 ounces (85 grams) of canned tuna
  2. Dairy products: Certain dairy products can contribute to iodine intake, especially if they are fortified with iodine. Examples include:
    • Yogurt: 1 cup (240 ml) of plain yogurt
    • Milk: 1 cup (240 ml) of cow’s milk
    • Cheese: 1 ounce (28 grams) of cheddar cheese
  3. Eggs: One large egg contains about 24 micrograms (mcg) of iodine.
  4. Iodized salt: Iodized salt is a common source of iodine in many diets. However, the amount of iodine in iodized salt can vary, so it’s important to check the label. On average, 1/4 teaspoon of iodized salt provides approximately 71 mcg of iodine.
  5. Some fruits and vegetables: While fruits and vegetables are not typically high in iodine, the iodine content can vary depending on the iodine content of the soil in which they were grown. Some examples of fruits and vegetables that may contain small amounts of iodine include strawberries, potatoes, and cranberries.

Iodine content of foods can vary depending on factors such as processing, cooking methods, and the region where the food is produced. The specific iodine content of a food can be affected by the soil’s iodine levels, farming practices, and fortification practices in different countries.

If you have concerns about your iodine intake, it is recommended to consult with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian who can provide personalized guidance and help you ensure you meet your iodine requirements based on your specific needs and dietary habits.

Vitamin D Needs Postpartum

Vitamin D has been linked to maternal mental well-being during the postpartum period. The Japan Environment and Children’s Study, as researched by Tsunoda K et al. (2023), explored the association between dietary intake of vitamin D during pregnancy and the risk of postpartum depressive symptoms. The study found that higher vitamin D intake during pregnancy was associated with a lower risk of postpartum depressive symptoms. These findings highlight the potential role of vitamin D in supporting maternal mental health during the postpartum phase.

Vitamin D, often referred to as the “sunshine vitamin,” can be obtained from sun exposure as well as dietary sources. However, it can be challenging for postpartum women to achieve optimal levels solely through sunlight exposure and diet alone. Factors such as limited sun exposure, use of sunscreen, and geographical location may affect vitamin D status. Consequently, healthcare professionals often recommend vitamin D supplementation to ensure adequate levels.

The recommended daily intake of vitamin D for postpartum breastfeeding women is the same as for all adult women. According to the current guidelines, including those from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the recommended daily intake of vitamin D for adults, including breastfeeding women, is 600 international units (IU) per day. Keep in mind that deficiency is common, particularly in those living in northern hemispheres, who are overweight or obese, or have darke skin tones. Getting your level checked is ideal to be sure higher doses are not needed for repletion.

If you are breastfeeding postpartum, supplementing with 6,400 IU can increase the vitamin D in breastmilk, so directly supplement your infant is not necessary.

It’s important to note that the IOM’s guidelines were last updated in 2010, and there may be newer recommendations or variations based on individual circumstances. It’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional, such as your doctor or a registered dietitian, for personalized advice on nutrient requirements during postpartum and breastfeeding periods. They can consider factors such as your specific health needs, location, sunlight exposure, and any other relevant considerations.

The Link Between Tryptophan and Postpartum Depression

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that plays a crucial role in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and promotes relaxation. While there is no specific recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for tryptophan, the general recommendation for protein intake in breastfeeding women is an additional 25 grams per day compared to non-pregnant, non-lactating women.

Because tryptophan supports serotonin production, even for the postpartum woman who is not breastfeeding it is an important amino acid to think about to prevent or combat postpartum depression.

The postpartum period is a time of immense joy and adjustment for new mothers. However, it can also be accompanied by emotional challenges, including postpartum depression (PPD). PPD affects approximately 10-20% of women after childbirth and can have a significant impact on maternal well-being and the mother-child relationship. Lower levels of tryptophan have been associated with decreased serotonin production, which may contribute to the development of depressive symptoms.

Recent research has explored the role of tryptophan, an essential amino acid, in the development and management of postpartum mood disorders. A systematic review and meta-analysis conducted by Liu ZF et al. (2022) and explore the association between tryptophan levels and postpartum depression. The systematic review and meta-analysis compiled a comprehensive collection of studies to investigate the relationship between tryptophan and postpartum mood disorders.

The analysis by Liu ZF et al. (2022) revealed a significant association between lower tryptophan levels and an increased risk of postpartum depression. The studies included in the analysis assessed tryptophan levels through various methods, including blood samples and dietary assessments. The findings suggest that tryptophan may be a potential biological marker for identifying women at higher risk of developing postpartum depression.

While the precise mechanisms underlying the link between tryptophan and postpartum depression are not yet fully understood, several factors contribute to this association. Hormonal fluctuations during the postpartum period can impact tryptophan metabolism and serotonin synthesis. Additionally, lifestyle factors such as inadequate nutrition, sleep deprivation, and stress can affect tryptophan availability and utilization.

Addressing tryptophan levels during the postpartum period may hold promise for preventing or managing postpartum depression. Increasing dietary intake of tryptophan-rich foods may help support optimal tryptophan levels and subsequent serotonin production.

Good dietary sources of tryptophan include:

  • Turkey, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy products
  • Nuts, seeds, and legumes

Please remember that the information provided in this blog post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. If you are experiencing postpartum depression or any mental health concerns, please consult with a healthcare provider for personalized guidance and support.

Folate Insufficiency Linked to Depression in Women in the Perinatal Period

As discussed elsewhere on this site, folate is an important precursor to serotonin production, and deficiency has been linked to depression. This includes pregnant women, who have increased folate needs due to fetal development and to prevent neural tube defects. During pregnancy, the recommended intake of folate increases to 600 mcg DFE per day.

During breastfeeding, the recommended daily intake of folate for women remains the same as it is for non-pregnant and non-lactating women. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of folate for adults is 400 micrograms (mcg) of dietary folate equivalents (DFE) per day.

While the specific folate needs during breastfeeding are not elevated compared to the non-pregnant state, it’s still important to maintain an adequate intake of folate-rich foods. Good dietary sources of folate include leafy green vegetables, legumes, fortified cereals, citrus fruits, and liver.

In some cases, healthcare professionals may recommend a prenatal or postnatal vitamin supplement that contains folate to ensure adequate intake. People with the MTHFR SNP benefit from taking the active form of folate, methylfolate, and may require greater amounts of folate per day.

If you have any specific concerns about your folate intake or if you are taking any supplements, it is always a good idea to consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian for personalized advice based on your individual circumstances.

Disclaimer:

The information provided in this blog post is for educational purposes only and should not replace professional medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider for personalized guidance and recommendations regarding your overall postpartum health.

References

Martin JC, Joham AE, Mishra GD, Hodge AM, Moran LJ, Harrison CL. Postpartum Diet Quality: A Cross-Sectional Analysis from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health. J Clin Med. 2020 Feb 6;9(2):446. doi: 10.3390/jcm9020446. PMID: 32041231; PMCID: PMC7073585.

Nansel TR, Cummings JR, Burger K, Siega-Riz AM, Lipsky LM. Greater Ultra-Processed Food Intake during Pregnancy and Postpartum Is Associated with Multiple Aspects of Lower Diet Quality. Nutrients. 2022 Sep 22;14(19):3933. doi: 10.3390/nu14193933. PMID: 36235585; PMCID: PMC9572643.

Faria-Schützer DB, Surita FG, Rodrigues L, Turato ER. Eating Behaviors in Postpartum: A Qualitative Study of Women with Obesity. Nutrients. 2018 Jul 10;10(7):885. doi: 10.3390/nu10070885. PMID: 29996489; PMCID: PMC6073558.

Ball L, de Jersey S, Parkinson J, Vincze L, Wilkinson S. Postpartum nutrition: Guidance for general practitioners to support high-quality care. Aust J Gen Pract. 2022 Mar;51(3):123-128. doi: 10.31128/AJGP-09-21-6151. PMID: 35224570.

Opie RS, Uldrich AC, Ball K. Maternal Postpartum Diet and Postpartum Depression: A Systematic Review. Matern Child Health J. 2020 Aug;24(8):966-978. doi: 10.1007/s10995-020-02949-9. PMID: 32367245.

Lin YH, Chen CM, Su HM, Mu SC, Chang ML, Chu PY, Li SC. Association between Postpartum Nutritional Status and Postpartum Depression Symptoms. Nutrients. 2019 May 28;11(6):1204. doi: 10.3390/nu11061204. PMID: 31141947; PMCID: PMC6628029.

Trujillo J, Vieira MC, Lepsch J, Rebelo F, Poston L, Pasupathy D, Kac G. A systematic review of the associations between maternal nutritional biomarkers and depression and/or anxiety during pregnancy and postpartum. J Affect Disord. 2018 May;232:185-203. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2018.02.004. Epub 2018 Feb 15. PMID: 29494902.

Yahya NFS, Teng NIMF, Das S, Juliana N. Nutrition and physical activity interventions to ameliorate postpartum depression: A scoping review. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2021 Dec;30(4):662-674. doi: 10.6133/apjcn.202112_30(4).0013. PMID: 34967195.

Jin Y, Coad J, Skeaff SA, Zhou SJ, Brough L. Iodine status of postpartum women and their infants aged 3, 6 and 12 months: Mother and Infant Nutrition Investigation (MINI). Br J Nutr. 2022 Feb 28;127(4):570-579. doi: 10.1017/S000711452100129X. Epub 2021 Apr 16. PMID: 33858523.

Hollis BW, Wagner CL, Howard CR, Ebeling M, Shary JR, Smith PG, Taylor SN, Morella K, Lawrence RA, Hulsey TC. Maternal Versus Infant Vitamin D Supplementation During Lactation: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Pediatrics. 2015 Oct;136(4):625-34. doi: 10.1542/peds.2015-1669. Erratum in: Pediatrics. 2019 Jul;144(1): PMID: 26416936; PMCID: PMC4586731.

Tsunoda K, Hamazaki K, Matsumura K, Kasamatsu H, Tsuchida A, Inadera H; Japan Environment  and Children’s Study (JECS) Group. Dietary Intake of Vitamin D during Pregnancy and the Risk of Postpartum Depressive Symptoms: The Japan Environment and Children’s Study. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2023;69(1):14-20. doi: 10.3177/jnsv.69.14. PMID: 36858536.

Liu, Z.F., Sylivris, A., Gordon, M. et al. The association between tryptophan levels and postpartum mood disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry 22, 539 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-022-04178-6

Website | + posts

Anne Marie Berggren RDN, MS, CDN, CNSC is a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Nutrition, training in integrative and functional nutrition, nutrition for mental health, obesity and weight management, is a board certified nutrition support clinician, and an adjunct professor for the Stony Brook Graduate Nutrition Program teaching advanced clinical nutrition.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top