Across much of the Arab world and Asia, women who had just given birth were traditionally required to stay in bed for as long as 40 days to avoid risk of mortality and infection and recover their health. While modern medicine has reduced the impact of the more serious postpartum problems, diet is an easy way for a new mother to recover quickly — and boost her baby’s health.
“Even though you’re not eating for two, your body needs to restore a lot of important nutrients,” says Nadine Aoun, Clinical Dietician at Medcare Women and Children hospital. She says balanced meals, with half your plate filled with fruit and vegetables, and the rest comprising whole grains, proteins and good fats are essential to recovery. “Also try to limit packaged, processed foods and drinks that are high in salt, saturated fat and extra sugars.”
Zenia Menon, a nutritionist at the Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre, says the first few weeks to months are the most crucial for new mothers. “It is important to focus on nourishing yourself with a nutrition plan to regain all your energy and heal faster by consuming nutrient-dense foods to support your body,” she says, advising warm and easy-to-digest foods such as soups and stews, produce rich in antioxidants, and essential supplements as needed. “Eat nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods,” she advises. “Think colourful produce, healthy proteins, fats, and gluten-free, nutrient-rich grains.”
Avoiding fad diets
No matter which celebrity you want to emulate Menon warns against fad diets and exercise routines because your body needs to recover its strength and abilities.
“Most mothers wish to lose their pregnancy weight and attempt some form of extreme dieting for fast weight loss,” she says. “This is not healthy if one is breastfeeding as it can cause your body to lose essential nutrients and affect the baby too.
The total energy intake should not be less than 1,800kcal/day to allow for adequate intake of protein, vitamins and minerals.
“The total energy intake by these women should not be less than 1,800 kcal a day to allow the adequate intake of protein, vitamins and minerals. In general, an additional 500 kcal of energy daily is recommended throughout lactation.”
Women who are naturally slender and those who are physically active (doing about 45 minutes of exercise a day) are often advised a higher calorie intake, Menon says.
Those recommendations assume that a new mum’s body will gradually lose accumulated body fat to supply some of the energy needed while breastfeeding, she adds.
Try to limit packaged, processed foods and drinks that are high in salt, saturated fat and extra sugars.
“The ideal way to lose those pounds slowly and steadily is by having a well-nourished balanced diet and by cutting down on unhealthy snacks.”
Oats for energy
You may think you should jump on to a high-protein diet to get back into shape as soon as you’re out of hospital, but carbohydrates are an essential food group for everyone. Losing weight too quickly may cause you to feel sluggish and lethargic, and whole grains such as oats, brown rice or bread and pasta can help keep your energy levels constant by balancing blood sugars instead of providing a rush of glucose all at once.
Salmon for protein
Menon recommends every new mum eat fatty fish such as salmon at least two or three times a week. “Salmon is a nutritional powerhouse,” she says, because it contains docosahexaenoic acid, a healthy and essential healthy fatty acid that’s important for the development of your baby’s eyes, brain and general nervous system. “For mums, it provides good protein, healthy fats such as omega-3 which elevate your mood, and play a role in preventing postpartum depression. Rich non-meat sources of protein include eggs, pulses, nuts and seeds, which help maintain and repair cells.”
Beef for iron
Iron’s role in the proper functioning of blood cannot be understated – the mineral helps transport oxygen around the body and lean beef and poultry is a good source of both iron and vitamin B12 for mums and their newborns, Menon says. Women who’ve just given birth may report low levels of iron and even anaemia because they need more blood for their baby’s growth, Aoun explains. “Anaemia can make you feel lethargic, so boost iron stores by eating a diet rich in dark-green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, watercress, chard and curly kale, plus beans, nuts, meat, apricots and prunes. Whether you eat meat or go vegetarian through sources such as tofu and beans, 15mg of iron a day should be your goal.”
Greens for vitamins
Nutritionists advise hoovering up more spinach, broccoli, kale, Swiss chard and the like. “They’re full of fibre, vitamin A, calcium, vitamin C, iron and heart-healthy antioxidants, as well as being low in calories,” says Menon.
Yogurt for calcium
Dairy products are packed with calcium, which is essential for both mum and baby. “If you’re breastfeeding, you need plenty of calcium to strengthen your baby’s bones and teeth and ensure his or her blood clots normally,” Aoun explains. Research show that new mums also lose calcium four times as quickly during lactation than during pregnancy, principally affecting bone mass and mineral density. Yogurt’s other benefits lie in probiotics, which improve your digestive health, reduce constipation and improve the way your body absorbs nutrients. “You’ll need 1,000mg — or about 3 servings of low-fat dairy — each day.”
Oranges for vitamin C
Even schoolchildren will tell you that Vitamin C can heal and ward off infections, and women who’ve just given birth — whether naturally or via C-section — need more of a helping hand with postpartum recovery. “Vitamin C helps repair and maintain tissue,” Aoun says. Experts recommend 120mg of vitamin C per day, but whether or not you’re getting it from pharmaceutical sources, it doesn’t hurt to add oranges (a small orange has about 50mg of vitamin C), kiwis (64mg each) or red peppers (109mg) to your meals.
Legumes for folate
When you’re pregnant, you’ll often hear about folate, a B-vitamin that your body requires in order to make DNA and other genetic material. But those very factors require you to continue eating foods rich in folate and the related compound folic acid to avoid blood disorders that cause weakness, fatigue, irritability and headache, as well as changes in the colour of the skin, hair, or fingernails, according to the US National Institutes of Health. Legumes such as kidney beans, black-eyed peas and peanuts are great sources of folate and are a vegetarian source of iron, Menon explains, as are leafy greens.