Atkins for breastfeeding mothers

Breastfeeding babyFor new mothers, losing weight is probably the furthest thing from their minds and in my opinion, this is exactly as it should be. I think that in our culture mothers are sometimes expected to bounce back to ‘normal’ as though nothing has changed! In reality, everything has changed and you have a lot more important things to think about in those first few weeks or months. As well as getting to know your baby, establishing breastfeeding, adjusting your sleeping patterns and often your expectations you need to try to give yourself time to rest and recover.

However, at some point when you feel ready to begin losing the baby weight and you have consulted with your doctor, the Atkins Nutritional Approach is an excellent choice. This is true no matter how you feed your baby but when breastfeeding there are some extra considerations so I’ll focus on these for this article.

Won’t breastfeeding make me lose the baby weight?

While breastfeeding certainly helps with losing the baby weight more quickly, it’s not a magic fix. Just as you cannot ‘out-train a bad diet’ you can’t ‘out-breastfeed a bad diet’ either! There are many many regular gym goers and marathon runners that are overweight proving that exercise alone will not make you lose weight. In the same way, it stands to reason that if your diet is not good, the extra calories needed for breastfeeding will not make you lose the baby weight either.

Should I wait until the baby is weaned?

Breastfeeding mother outdoorsSometimes you may see the advice to wait until the baby is weaned before starting a diet. However the World Health Organisation say:
“Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.”

Obviously, the decision on when to wean your baby is completely up to the mother and baby but if you feel you would like to shed the baby weight and continue to breastfeed then hopefully this article will show you that you can have the best of both worlds.

When can I start?

La Leche League, who really are experts when it comes to breastfeeding, recommend waiting until two months postpartum to purposely lose weight, as the mother’s body needs time to recover from childbirth and establish a good milk supply. Bear in mind that you may not feel ready to start a weight loss plan as soon as those two months have passed. For instance if your baby is high needs, you had breastfeeding difficulties in the early days, you are feeling sleep deprived or you don’t have much support in general – getting into your pre-pregnancy jeans might not be high on your priority list and this is fine. The point when you feel ready to start will depend on you, your health and your baby.

How quickly can I expect to lose weight?

Linda O’Byrne, chief nutritionist for the New Atkins Nutritional Approach, said:

Before embarking on any weight loss plan, new mums need to first consult their doctor to gain advice on when to start dieting and exercising.

Typically, you lose up to 10 pounds during childbirth and then additional weight falls off in the weeks following as you shed retained fluids. However, the fat stored during pregnancy is slower to budge.

Losing baby weight shouldn’t be seen as a race and it’s important that realistic goals are set. Aim to lose one to two pounds per week until you hit your target weight, but bear in mind that to shed the stones and get back to your pre-pregnancy weight, it could take six months or even longer.”

How do I follow Atkins while breastfeeding?

It is recommended that you avoid Phase one or Induction while breastfeeding. In Phase One you would normally eat less than 20g carbs a day but this would lead to too rapid a weight loss. The issue with losing weight too quickly while you are breastfeeding is that toxins stored in your body fat can be released into your bloodstream and the toxin levels in your milk may increase. This would be the case if losing weight quickly, no matter what weight loss plan you were following. This is why you need to aim to lose the weight gradually i.e. one to two pounds a week. Starting Atkins in Phase Two at about 50g carbs a day should enable a gradual weight loss. If you find you are losing more quickly then just increase the carb amount – in this way you can control the rate at which you lose weight. Starting at this level will allow you to cut out sugary, ‘junk’ carbs yet still get good carbs from foods such as vegetables, fruit and pulses.

Another idea might be to start the diet slowly and follow the approach of changing one meal at a time to be Atkins friendly outlined here. This is also a good option if you feel the idea of changing all of your meals at once a little overwhelming.

What about ketones?

This is a question that crops up when people talk about doing Atkins. Normally with the typical Western diet, where we eat high carbohydrate diets, our primary source of fuel is glucose. Carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice, sweets, sugar, fizzy drinks) are broken down into sugar or glucose in our blood. Our bodies use this for energy and store the extra as fat. When we reduce the carbs in our diet, our bodies switch to using fat for fuel instead. Fat from our diet (or from our body) is broken down into ketones – and we use this as fuel instead. This results in weight loss once the carbs are reduced sufficiently.

When your body is using fat and therefore ketones for fuel you are said to be in ketosis. Nutritional ketosis, as it is also known, is a normal physiological state and completely safe. In fact the body is actually powered normally by ketone bodies while we sleep (unless you get up in the middle of the night to have a high carb snack!). Ketosis was common and normal in populations such as the Massai tribe in Africa and in the Inuits. Dietary fatty acids and ketone bodies are very healthy fuels for the body in contrast to glucose which causes insulin resistance, type two diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Western type diseases are remarkably absent in tribes such as the Inuit when following their traditional diet.

Nutritional ketosis is unfortunately often confused with Ketoacidosis. The latter is a dangerous condition that mainly happens in uncontrolled type 1 diabetes or can be a problem for alcoholics. However, this has nothing to do with nutritional ketosis which is a normal state for our bodies when we reduce carbohydrates.

Another interesting fact is that newborn babies are in ketosis – this is their normal state. For the first few days, babies can lose up to 10% of their body weight – therefore they are using their body fat (broken down into ketones) for fuel. This excellent article entitled “Babies thrive under a ketogenic metabolism” also references a study that shows breastfed babies remain in a mild state of ketosis. They hypothesise that this could be part of the reason for the positive health outcomes seen in breastfed babies. It is amazing to think that the time when a human grows most and our brain grows and develops more quickly than at any other time in our lives, we are primarily ketogenic. It is also reasonable to think this is the evolutionary normal as well as the physiological normal. Some fascinating information on the possible implications of this for babies here.

Given that being in ketosis is the normal state for very healthy populations such as the Inuit and is the normal state for babies, the concern with ketones from a mothers blood spilling into her milk seem groundless. In addition, the level of ketones in your blood when starting at about 50g of carbs a day as recommended by Atkins would not be very high.

What about my milk supply?

Irish mother breastfeedingThe La Leche League International site states that “Gradual weight loss has not been found to affect either the mother’s milk supply or the baby’s health”. So once you begin the diet at a higher level of carbs and avoid Phase One, there should be no issues regarding milk supply.
I did find this study which suggests that a low carbohydrate/high fat diet for breast-feeding mothers seems to be very healthy. A reduction in maternal carbohydrate intake did not affect the volume of breast milk produced. The amount of milk fat, energy and infant consumption was actually increased.  These are all good things in terms of providing nutrition to breast-feeding babies.
If you do feel that your milk supply is affected, check that your babies nappy output and babies weight gain is what it should be and whether your baby might be going through a growth spurt. If you feel there might be an issue then you could increase the good carbs e.g. have porridge for breakfast a little more often. However, it does seem unlikely that it would affect milk supply once you follow the guidelines of waiting until milk supply is established and making sure you lose the weight gradually. After all, babies of tribes such as the Inuit were most likely breastfed and their mother’s traditional diet was very low in carbohydrates.

Will I get enough vitamins?

Atkins recommend taking a good multivitamin and Omega 3 supplement daily even though by following the Atkins approach you will be getting lots of vitamins as you are eating a very varied diet. This list of foods high in B vitamins for instance lists many foods that are completely acceptable on Atkins. Examples of foods that are naturally high in different B vitamins that you can enjoy include:
  • meats and fish such as beef, pork, ham, chicken, salmon, clams, mussels, crab and other fish and seafood
  • dark green leafy vegetables such as asparagus, spinach as well as vegetables like mushrooms and broccoli
  • dairy products such as yogurt and cheese
  • lentils and legumes
  • avocados
  • eggs

Why Atkins?

This could be a whole article in itself but I’ll try to be brief! In addition to the information above on a low carb diet being the normal state for some populations (that enjoy excellent health) and the fact that nutritional ketosis is perfectly safe and it doesn’t appear to have any adverse effects for milk supply here are a few other reasons to choose Atkins:

  • A huge and growing body of research proves the health benefits of the Atkins approach. It is true that you do eat saturated fats (cream, butter, fat from meat etc) on Atkins but a complete myth that these foods are bad for heart health in the context of a low carb diet. See our post on The REAL Heart Healthy Foods for more information on this including links to the studies that prove it.
  • Aside from the fact that the studies prove it is healthy, when you consider that you are replacing nutritionally empty ‘junk’ carbs with whole natural foods, it makes sense. It is an eating program that includes meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, healthy natural fats such as olive and flaxseed oil, nuts/seeds and their butters, butter, cream, cheese and avocados as well as plenty of vegetables and fruit such as strawberries, raspberries and blueberries,
  • It is sustainable. When following Atkins, you are not hungry. If you are – you are not eating enough or maybe you are trying to restrict fat (which is not a good idea). Therefore it is a nutritional approach that can be followed long term. This is the key – it is more a lifestyle change rather than a ‘diet’ that you follow for a few weeks or months and then return to your former way of eating. In this scenario, you will inevitably regain the weight. My husband and I have been following Atkins way of eating for over 4 and a half years. I followed it throughout my pregnancy (more on that in a future post) and have done ever since my baby was born in Oct 2014.
  • You are not restricting calories. Most of the advice when it comes to dieting and breastfeeding seems to hinge on the fact that most diets restrict calories. This is not the case with Atkins. It is true that people following Atkins tend to automatically reduce the calories they eat even when told to eat to fullness. However, from my personal experience with breastfeeding, I found I ate a lot more while pregnant and breastfeeding than before I was pregnant so I think your hunger levels would guide you there.
  • The carb cravings go away! This is a difficult one for many people to believe until they have tried it for two weeks but when you stop eating foods like bread, cereal, sweets and fizzy drinks – you stop craving them. This makes it much easier to stick with this way of eating. In contrast, on diets such as Weight Watchers or Slimming World you are allowed to eat some carbs and from what we’ve been told it sounds like this can prevent you from beating those cravings. While it sounds more appealing in theory to eat high carb foods regularly, it seems likely that this would actually make it more difficult for many people particularly those more intolerant to carbs.
  • It works for losing weight! The goal here is to lose weight in a healthy way for you and your baby so obviously you need to know it will work! When you reduce the carbs, your body switches to using fat for fuel instead. This includes fat from your diet and from your body. Your body essentially becomes a fat burning machine and you lose weight. You may need to tweak the carb amounts a little and do it gradually but you will see results.

On a personal note, I have found Atkins very effective. I have been following Atkins for 4.5 years now including all through my pregnancy, though I’d say with a higher carb amount while pregnant and breastfeeding than I did before I was pregnant. I was within 4 lbs of my pre-pregnancy weight two weeks after my baby was born. This was definitely without me making any particular effort – just following my normal i.e. Atkins diet. By the time he was 4 months old I was back to my pre-pregnancy weight. I do remember being back in the size 8 jeans I had bought before pregnancy pretty soon after he was born too! Atkins really is amazing!  I’m now actually half a stone less than my pre-pregnancy weight. I breastfed exclusively since Sam was born in Oct 14. We introduced solids when he was almost 7 months and I continue to breastfeed him on demand (10 months on as I write this). He is a very healthy baby who is meeting all the development milestones as normal. He is also very active – just watching him on the go would certainly dispel the myth about needing carbs for energy!

Notes for formula feeding mothers

While you don’t need to worry about interfering with milk supply by starting too soon, you will probably want to wait before starting trying to lose weight too. After all – you have just given birth and it takes time for your body to recover. As always with starting any weight loss plan you should check in with your doctor.

Losing weight quickly will not be issue for you as there is no worry with toxins from body fat being transmitted into your milk so starting in the Induction Phase is fine. Just be sure to drink lots of water and to drink Bovril or broth every day so you avoid the symptoms people can sometimes suffer when starting Phase One. More on that in tips on doing Phase One here. You can definitely do without suffering through unnecessary symptoms while looking after your little baby!

Resources and further information:

Oh, Baby! How to Lose Baby Weight with Atkins – From the Atkins website; an article with tips on how to follow Atkins and what to eat including a typical daily menu.
How to follow Phase 2 of Atkins – This page gives you all the information you need to follow Phase Two of the diet. It is a good idea to read up on Phase One too as the second phase builds on it. Just keep in mind you’ll be starting Phase Two at a higher carb level of approximately 50g carbs a day.
Scientific research supporting Atkins – this is a site set up for doctors and other Health Professionals to help them in supporting their patients. It has a great list of all the studies that support Atkins and it’s health benefits.
La Leche League Ireland – The site has numbers for La Leche League leaders as well as listings of their breastfeeding support meetings around the country – definitely the people to ask if you have any breastfeeding questions or issues.
La Leche League International article on Low Carb diets – This article from 2006 talks about low carb diets for breastfeeding mothers. It advises gradual weight loss and not being hungry or restricting calories, which fits with the guidelines from Atkins perfectly. On the concerns on ketones, check out the links in the article above and the resources below. By taking a good multivitamin and ensuring you are eating a wide variety of foods, you should have no issues regarding nutritional balance.
Breast Feeding and Low Carb/High Fat Diets – a very interesting article by Dr Nemechek on the effect of low carb diets on milk supply. He says “The better solution seems to be to decrease your carb intake, increase your fat intake and your breast milk production problems should end”.
Ketosis Myths and Facts on the Low-Carbohydrate Diet – an excellent article explaining that ketosis is a normal and safe.
Babies thrive under a ketogenic metabolism – this article has comprehensive explanations and links to research on the subject. It makes the point that babies are in ketosis soon after birth and that breastfeeding is ketogenic.
Ketosis – key to human babies’ big brains? – A dietician’s take on the fact that newborns and exclusively breastfed babies are in ketosis: “Nature seldom does something without a reason, so it’s likely that ketosis may confer some kind of evolutionary advantage to human infants. Research suggests that it may be one of the main factors behind the development of the large human brain.

Leave a Reply