Our season of postpartum motherhood is all -encompassing. We experience moments of wonder and worry, happiness and helplessness, awe and angst, and often all within an average day. We are the nurturers, givers and comforters – roles that demand so much of the mother and can leave us feeling exhausted, drained and overwhelmed. And while it can be challenging to find time to nourish yourself, cook a meal, or to simply sit down to eat while caring for a newborn, a well-rounded diet is vital, now more than ever.
TO REPLENISH KEY NUTRIENTS POST-BIRTH
The process of growing and birthing a new life is an energy and nutrient-demanding event, so it is important that key nutrients, such as iron, calcium and omega-3 fats, are replenished in the postpartum period to support you in feeling your best as you embark on another physically, emotionally and mentally demanding life stage – mothering a newborn.
Iron enables our red blood cells to carry oxygen around our body, supports our bodies in unlocking the energy in food and boosts our immune system.
Iron in food can come in two forms – haem iron (found in red meat, organ meats, poultry, pork, fish and eggs) and non-haem iron (found in soybeans/ tofu, legumes, oats, quinoa, leafy greens, almonds, cashews, pepitas, sesame seeds, hemp seeds).
Haem iron is better absorbed by the body than non-haem iron, however there are clever ways to enhance your iron absorption, including:
- Pairing iron-containing foods with a source of vitamin C (eg. adding citrus, capsicum, tomato or kiwi fruit to a meal)
- Adding sources of non-haem iron into your meat containing meals (eg. lamb & lentil salad, chicken and cannellini bean soup)
- Avoiding tea and coffee with meals, as the tannins they contain can impair iron absorption
- Cooking vegetables, which increases the bioavailability of non-haem iron (eg. our bodies can absorb 6% of the iron in raw broccoli vs 30% from cooked)
While pregnant, your baby’s calcium requirements may have been met by draining some of your own stores (particularly if you didn’t eat sufficient calcium-rich foods), so it’s important to enjoy food sources of calcium during your postpartum period. Dairy foods (milk, yoghurt, cheese) provide rich sources of calcium, so if you eat dairy products, aim for 3 serves per day. Plant-based sources of calcium include firm tofu (calcium set or fortified), seeds (chia, poppy, sesame), beans, dark green leafy vegetables, amaranth, almonds, Brazil nuts, dried figs and unhulled tahini.
Intake of omega-3 fats, and in particular DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are important throughout the postpartum period as pregnancy (and breastfeeding) can quickly deplete stores. Aim for a regular intake (150g serve, 2-3 times per week) of low-mercury oily fish, such as salmon, trout, herring, tuna, sardines, mackerel or anchovies.
Nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, chia seeds and linseeds (flax seeds), provide a plant version of omega-3, called ALA (alpha linolenic acid). ALA is converted to DHA in the body, however this process is inefficient (with estimates around 15%) so nuts and seeds are not a direct replacement for oily fish when it comes to omega-3s.
If you are vegetarian, vegan, have a fish allergy, or do not regularly eat oily fish, it is best to speak to a dietitian or your GP for tailored advice.
TO SUPPORT RECOVERY & WOUND HEALING
Regardless of how your little love came into the world, all new mothers can benefit from foods that support wound healing and recovery post-birth.
Zinc plays an important role in tissue repair, supports our immune system and forms part of many important enzymes and the hormone insulin. Similar to iron, zinc from animal foods and shellfish is more readily absorbed than from plant foods. Food sources rich in zinc include seafood, especially oysters, red meat, organ meats, milk, cheese, wholegrains, legumes and nuts.
Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant and plays a key role in the synthesis of collagen, which is the connective tissue protein found in skin, muscle, tendons and bones. In addition to supporting wound healing after birth, vitamin C also enhances our absorption of non-haem iron. Vitamin C is widely found in fruit and vegetables, with rich sources including citrus, berries, guava, mango, capsicum, kiwi fruit, pawpaw, parsley, broccoli, pineapple, spinach and cabbage.
TO OVERCOME SLEEP DEPRIVATION, FATIGUE & LOW ENERGY
The nights of interrupted sleep take their toll, leaving you feeling foggy and fatigued during the day. A lack of sleep can also increase your drive for sweets during your waking hours, as your body tries to ‘make-up’ for your lacking energy. Though it may be tempting, rather than reaching for a quick sugar fix, these strategies will give you the sustained energy boost your body and brain are craving.
Go for low and slow
When it comes to our carbs, ‘go for low and slow’. This is referring to the glycaemic index (GI), which is a measure of how quickly a carbohydrate food is broken down and absorbed into our blood. The goal here is for a slower, more gradual release of carbohydrates which will provide longer lasting energy, improve mental clarity and reduce hunger pangs and the associated ‘hangry’ mood that tends to come with them. In contrast, high GI foods are broken down quickly so create a sharp spike
in energy levels followed by a rapid fall. It is this drop in energy (blood glucose levels) that causes the dreaded ‘energy slump’, hunger, irritable mood, etc.
Although it is not always possible to identify the GI of a food just by looking at it, generally speaking, carbohydrate foods that are less processed and contain more wholegrains have a lower GI eg. wholegrain/ sourdough/ rye bread, rolled oats, bran, quinoa, basmati rice and legumes. While foods with a higher GI tend to be more refined eg. white and wholemeal bread, quick oats, Lebanese bread, Turkish bread, Jasmine/ Calrose/ sushi rice.
As we rush about our very full days, many of us remember to drink water only once we feel really thirsty. However, it is ideal to drink water consistently throughout the day to prevent ever feeling that thirst (it’s a signal that your body is already dehydrated). Water is involved in numerous body processes, supports good circulation, transports nutrients and removes toxins and waste products, so it makes sense even slight dehydration of 1-2% can leave us feeling foggy and sluggish.
Most of us need to drink approximately 2L (8 glasses) of water per day to replace what our body loses, while breastfeeding mamas need closer to 2.6L per day. However many of us struggle to meet this target – most commonly because we forget to drink water or don’t enjoy the taste – so here are a few tips:
- Firstly, buy a water bottle you’ll like using and secondly, fill it and take it with you everywhere. Put it in the nappy bag, your handbag or the car, and if you are breastfeeding, keep a bottle or jug by your breastfeeding chair.
- Set a timer on your phone to beep every hour as a reminder to drink
- Drink a glass of water every time you put your kiddos down for a nap and before you get them back up
- Link drinking water to something else you regularly do eg. every time you walk into the kitchen, make the first thing you do to drink a glass of water
- Add subtle flavour by adding citrus, frozen berries, cucumber slices or mint leaves
- Sip on herbal tea – peppermint, chamomile, roobois, chai
- Try a cold water infusion (ie. flavoured teabags that you infuse in cold water)
- Add some bubbles – soda water, mineral water or make your own with a soda stream
- Enjoy warming soups and broths during cooler weather
TO REDUCE THE RISK OF POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION
We are continuing to uncover the important role nutrition may play in reducing the risk of postpartum depression. We understand there to be an association between poorer quality diets and an increased risk of antenatal depressive symptoms. Iron and omega-3s are also the focus of much research, due to their involvement in the production of our ‘feel good’ hormones serotonin and dopamine. Just another, very important reason to ensure you are frequently enjoying the food sources rich in iron and omega-3 mentioned earlier.
Christina Ross is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and founder of Cultivate Nutrition, where she provides online nutrition consultations and courses for new, seasoned and soon-to-be mothers. She guides and supports women who are looking to reclaim their health and cultivate a positive relationship with food – to be the best version of themselves, for themselves and their family. You can learn more about how Christina can support you to eat well and feel your best through the following channels:
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