The Sneaky Reason Behind Breast-Feeding Cravings (Plus How to Satisfy Them)


For the past five months I've used one excuse to deny myself absolutely nothing. An extra slice of pizza? My kids' hot dogs? Halloween candy? "It's OK," I've said. "I'm nursing!"

I was under the impression that nursing was something like liposuction. With how much the baby is nursing, surely she's sucking the fat cells from my body, right?

But recently I learned that nursing is no reason to go crazy at the buffet—quite the opposite, in fact. I need to make sure I'm filling up on the right kinds of foods in order to properly nourish the baby. And, to my chagrin, I learned that my ravenous appetite has nothing to do with the voluminous amounts of breast milk I'm producing.

For a nursing nutrition reality check, I connected with Frances Largeman-Roth, the senior food and nutrition editor at Health magazine, author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Moms Healthy Eating Guide, and, most famously (to me), the inventor of the Better Than Elvis milkshake. (My review of her book is here.)

As a nursing mother herself, Largeman-Roth sympathized with my ravenous appetite and gave some recommendations regarding my diet.

"If youre breast-feeding exclusively, youre burning up to 500 calories a day," she says.

And what should I eat for those extra 500 calories? It turns out that pepperoni pizza and chocolate chip cookie dough didn't make the cut. Go figure.

Next Page: What I should be eating [ pagebreak ]
Instead, Largeman-Roth advises that I focus on these items:

Largeman-Roth cautions against eating too many mercury-laden fish—this is a good warning to heed, even after pregnancy. See which fish are low in mercury and rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Plus, she cautions against caffeine or foods that are too spicy, garlicky, or filled with onions.

I can attest to that last point, having nursed my daughter after an Ethiopian dinner packed with spicy legumes. Her face screwed up into a scowl, and she cried as she drank that spicy concoction.

In fact, upon further study, I learned that my insatiable appetite has more to do with sleep deprivation—a staple when it comes to raising a newborn—than with nursing.

Specifically, lack of sleep can alter two hormones that control appetite (spiking ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, and decreasing leptin, which suppresses food intake). Studies have shown that people who are sleep deprived tend to weigh more, possibly because these hormones can't function properly without a good night's sleep.

After each night of spotty sleep—rarely more than four hours in a row and always up by 6 o'clock with at least one of my girls—I spend all day raiding my pantry for fatty, sugary foods. I think it's a safe assumption that those hormones that regulate appetite are significantly out of whack.

Not only am I running around after three little kids while sleep deprived, but I actually have devil's advocate hormones telling me that I need to keep eating, even after I'm technically satiated. That's just plain unfair.

My recipe for countering the cravings is getting out for walks, fueling up with protein, staying hydrated, keeping healthy foods available (a bowl of baby carrots staves off trips to the cookie jar), and by going to bed as early as I can.

Most importantly, though, I'm going easy on myself. I am nursing. And that's hard work. If eating half of a Ritter Sport Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Bar keeps my eyes open and a smile on my face, sometimes that's just the way to go.