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The Basic Postpartum Diet

Learn about the healthy postpartum diet, including the different nutrients needed in the postpartum months.
Postpartum Nutrition

Omega-3 fatty acids

The Basic Postpartum Diet

The basic postpartum diet is a simple but healthy and wholesome one. It can best be summed up by the following guidelines:

  • Eat foods that supply your body with essential fatty acids, like fresh salmon, nuts, and seeds.
  • Eat whole, preferably organic, foods – whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits, unprocessed meats, nuts, and seeds, for example.
  • Avoid refined sugars and flour, during pregnancy and postpartum.
  • Eat foods that supply your body with antioxidants (mainly fresh fruits and vegetables).
  • Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly.
  • Eat a source of nutrient-laden fiber, such as ground flaxseeds.
Eat Foods that Supply Your Body with Essential Fatty Acids
Fatty acids are the final breakdown product of fats in the diet – the part of the fats you eat that is either stored or used in the cells for energy. Fatty acids were once viewed as nothing more than a source of stored calories, but modern research has shown that the quality of fatty acids in the body has profound effects on human health. Diseases related to inflammation, hormone imbalances, the immune system, behavioral problems, and the heart can often be partially or completely resolved if essential fatty acid levels are balanced through dietary changes or supplementation.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
When you are pregnant, the developing fetus requires large amounts of two specific fatty acids, arachidonic acid (AA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), to build brain and nerve cell membranes. Once a baby reaches about six months of age, his or her body will be able to make DHA and AA from other fatty acids, but while still in utero and in the first six months of life, these fats must be supplied in exact form by the mother's body – first through the placenta, then through breast milk. More than half of the nerve connections in baby's brain form during the first year of life, and the integrity of these connections is dependent upon the fatty acid supply from the mother. Ideally, mother's milk supplies DHA and AA to her baby through nursing for at least a year.

The fats you eat are transformed into hormonelike messenger molecules called prostaglandins, and how the balance of essential fats in your diet dictates the balance of prostaglandins in your body. These fats are also needed for proper brain and nervous system function in people of all ages, but are needed more than ever during gestation and in your baby's infancy, when those systems are undergoing their fastest period of growth.

The omega-3 fat docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is the most important structural and cognitive (brain-function-related) fat for your brain and for your baby's brain. The placenta draws DHA from the mother's body like a vacuum cleaner, and the milk ducts continue to drain her stores for as long as her baby nurses. If you do not keep replenishing your supply, your emotional and physical well-being will most likely be compromised in the postpartum period and beyond.

The research of Dr. Joseph Hibbeln, a psychiatrist, lipid biologist, and senior clinical investigator with the Section of Nutritional Neuroscience at the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse's Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics, beautifully illustrates the connection between omega-3 lack and postpartum depression. Dr. Hibbeln examined fish consumption and the incidence of postpartum depression (PPD) in several countries, and found that the more fish women ate, the less likely they were to develop PPD.

Other research has shown that with each successive pregnancy, blood levels of DHA fall further, and that this dramatically increases a woman's risk of pregnancy complications. This is why it is especially important to build up your reserves of these good oils if you are thinking of having another child. Pregnant mothers with the lowest levels of DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), another important fatty acid, in their red blood cells are nearly eight times more likely to develop preeclampsia, a complication of pregnancy characterized by elevated blood pressure, than are women with the highest levels of DHA and EPA.

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