Does diet really affect mothers' breast milk?


SAN ANTONIO – I am a nursing mother and, like many nursing moms, I wanted to know what was in my breast milk.

I came across a company called Lactation Lab that analyzes women’s milk and offers insights into what women can do to optimize their milk.

There are three levels of testing kits, from basic to premium, that test for a full range of things including calories, carbohydrates, vitamins and toxins, depending on which kit you order.

It turns out nature is pretty forgiving when it comes to breast milk.

“Protein and carbohydrates change with the overall duration of lactation but are relatively invariable between women at any stage of lactation,” said Lactation Lab owner Dr. Stephanie Canale.

Here’s what I learned about my milk when I sent it off to be analyzed:

There were 24.3 calories per ounce in my milk compared to the U.S. standard of 20 calories per ounce for infant formula - Canale said that was a really good thing! Canale advises women who are breastfeeding to take in an additional 500 calories per day.

The amount of protein my milk contained was just above average. Proteins are considered important for immune and neurological function. They’re also essential for tissue muscle and bone growth. If your milk is low on protein, Lactation Lab recommends eating two to three servings daily of meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt, tofu, cottage cheese or dried beans.

The fat content of my milk was also just above average. “The amount of fat in milk is contributes to your baby’s growth. It is essential for the metabolism of vitamins important for neurodevelopment and is the main source of calories,” according to Lactation Lab. Women lacking in fat are advised to increase fat consumption, specifically omega fatty acids, in order to improve the fat content of their milk.

I love pasta and sandwiches, so my carbohydrate count was decent. The Lactation Lab results note that lactose is the main sugar in breast milk and it helps decrease the amount of unhealthy bacteria in the stomach. Good sources of carbohydrates for breastfeeding mothers include dairy, fruit, grains, legumes, starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and sugary sweets - in limited amounts.

My milk’s calcium content fell a bit below the average line, but Canale said it was fine. Calcium is important for skeletal structure and essential for muscle and nerve function, according to Lactation Lab. If you need to bump up calcium in your milk, Canale recommends milk, yogurt, hard cheeses, calcium-fortified orange juice or calcium-fortified tofu.

Mine was low, and Canale asked if I was anemic during my pregnancy. Guess what? I was! And I’ve always been a red meat eater and never had an issue with iron before, so it was interesting to me to see that my iron was still low after having given birth. Canale advised eating more dark greens and possibly taking an iron supplement.

Vitamin C
Low again for me! Vitamin C is an important building block for collagen and connective tissue and my milk fell below the mark. Canale recommended I take a vitamin C supplement. Other options to increase vitamin C are citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, red and green peppers, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe and cauliflower.

Vitamin B12
Low again for me. Canale asked if I was a vegetarian, and I eat plenty of meat, so this was surprising to me. B12 is important for healthy nerve cells and the production of DNA. It’s also important for metabolism, formation of red blood cells and maintenance of the central nervous system. She recommended I take 1,000 mg of B12 daily. Food options for women wanting to increase B12 in their milk are fish, meat, poultry, eggs and diary products. 

Vitamin A
This was off the charts for me -- in a good way. Vitamin A is important for vision, bone growth and supporting a healthy immune system. Recommendations for women who are looking to bump up their vitamin A include eating carrots, broccoli, milk, eggs, squash, leafy green vegetables, liver and fish oils.

After getting my results back from Canale, I asked her a few questions. 

What's the deal with toxins in breast milk?
Certain foods contain high levels of toxins like arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. Women who are breastfeeding are told to avoid certain foods for this reason. One example would be fish known to have high levels of mercury, like shark or shrimp, which also could contain high levels of arsenic. "What is amazing is that the toxins clear quite quickly, usually 48 to 72 hours for arsenic for example,” Canale said.

How much does a woman's milk change day-to-day?
Once I start changing my diet and adding in these vitamins I wanted to know how long it would be until my milk adjusts. “It takes about four to 10 days for the nutrients in your diet to be stable in your milk,” Canale said.

Why should women test their milk?
"This process is not about looking for deficiencies but instead learning about how to optimize your milk. As the first company to offer a complete milk analysis, we provide detailed explanations and actionable insights to make your breastfeeding journey as empowering as possible,” Canale said.

Does a woman's milk change as her baby gets older?
"Protein and carbohydrates change with the overall duration of lactation but are relatively invariable between women at any stage of lactation. Breast milk from a mother who gives birth preterm will generally have a higher protein content than that of a woman breastfeeding a toddler, since preterm infants require a higher protein diet.” Canale said.

If you're curious about Lactation Lab and want to learn more, you can visit the company's website here.

Full disclosure: I received a free standard kit to test for this story. Kits normally range from $99-$349. In my opinion, the standard kit was worth it because I have been able to alter my diet and take supplements to ensure I have the proper amounts of vitamins and nutrition in my milk. I've also noticed I have more energy, which could be a result of balancing and increasing the vitamins my milk was lacking.

Lactation Lab is currently running a special for Mother's Day and offering 20% off any test kit purchased through Sunday with the coupon code 20MOTHERSDAY.

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