What Is the Keto Diet, and Is It Good for New Moms?

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Every couple of years, a new diet craze hits and the bandwagon fills up with followers. We’ve seen it happen with Atkins, Whole30, paleo, and the South Beach diet. I get it: when you’ve tried everything, you’ll try anything! A lot of these diets claim to be about promoting healthier lifestyles, and the associated weight loss is just a nice side effect. And that makes sense, since weight loss really boils down to eating better. But some of these diets can be incredibly restrictive, and may not work for everyone. Pregnant and nursing moms need to be especially careful when starting a new diet. Lately, the keto diet has been all over, and everyone seems to be doing it. But while the success stories are incredibly inspiring, it’s important to understand what it is, and if it’s good for new mamas.

The keto diet, or ketogenic diet, has actually been around for a long time. It has been used since the 1920’s to treat epilepsy. Its popularity as a weight loss diet seems to be a new trend, however.

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In a nutshell, the keto diet is a high-fat and protein, low-to-no carb diet. Your body typically uses carbohydrates as fuel for muscle, organ, and brain function. When your body doesn’t get enough carbs, it starts using fat molecules as fuel. These molecules are called ketones, hence the name. The idea is to severely limit your carb intake to get your body into a state of ketosis. Once you’re in ketosis and your body starts using ketones for energy (basically eating its own fat), the pounds start to melt away.

Full disclosure: I know a couple of people who have been keto for a while, and it has worked wonders for them. Everyone’s ratio will be slightly different, but generally speaking, you follow a 75/20/5 rule: 75% of your calories from fats, 20% from proteins, and just 5% from carbs. The hardest part for a lot of people is how restrictive the keto diet is. But from what my friends tell me, once you get used to eating this way, it becomes second nature.

When I say restrictive, I mean RESTRICTIVE.

When you follow the keto diet, your carb intake has to stay really, really low. In order to get into ketosis, your body can’t get glucose from carbohydrates. So that means you have to say goodbye to A LOT of stuff. On a strict keto diet, you have to give up legumes, grains and products made from grains, sugar (including fruit, with the exception of berries in small amounts), some oils (sunflower, canola, peanut, etc.), most alcohol, low-fat dairy and milk, and root vegetables. It’s a lot!

But, you are allowed to have a lot of stuff, too. The diet consists of lots and lots of protein and fats. Meat, fish, and most seafood and shellfish are good. High-fat dairy and cheese, most fats and oils, eggs, nuts and nut butters, berries, low-carb veggies (avocado, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, lettuce, etc.), spices, water, coffee, and some alcohols. Lots of keto people use artificial sweeteners as well, like stevia and sucralose.

If you can stick to the diet, you’ll very likely see results. But how does such a restrictive diet play into postpartum recovery and breastfeeding? Is it good for new moms? Opinions vary widely.

One of the concerns with dieting while breastfeeding is that your calorie intake will get too low to support milk production. Most women need to eat between 1500-1800 calories a day to maintain a good supply. With keto, calorie intake likely wouldn’t be an issue, as you get most of your calories from fats and proteins. It’s not about cutting calories on the keto diet. In fact, many people are initially shocked by the amount of calories they put away at every meal!

For new moms who’re struggling with postpartum recovery, it can be hit or miss! Many keto devotees say that following the diet has given them lots of energy they didn’t have before, has helped with getting better quality sleep, and has improved their skin. But, it can be a lot of work! Especially for a tired new mom trying to settle into a routine with a newborn. When you start out on keto, you really have to be diligent about measuring your intake of protein, fats, and carbs. And while there are lots of easy and quick keto recipes out there, you’re still looking at cooking at least three meals a day.

But among some experts, there is a concern about nutrition on the keto diet while breastfeeding.

The keto diet can be low in essential vitamins and nutrients that breastfeeding moms need, like vitamins C and K, calcium, potassium, chloride, and magnesium. I do want to note that keto people often take supplements to keep these nutrients within safe levels. However, nutritionist Rosanne Rust, MS, RND, LDN also says that the foods that need to be cut out in order to get into ketosis, like beans and grains, are very nutritious for breastfeeding moms. Says Rust, “If a lactating woman isn’t getting the calcium she needs during pregnancy and lactation, her body will rob it from her bones, which can result in osteoporosis later in life”. (High-fat dairy and cheese, which is allowed and encouraged on the keto diet, is an excellent source of calcium.)

In addition to the nutritional concerns, some experts warn that ketones may not be the best thing for your baby. The problem is, there’s not a lot of research on whether ketones pass through breastmilk. And even less research on how ketones might affect a developing baby’s brain. The issue, it seems, is that once you enter ketosis, your body goes from being glucose-dependent to dependent on ketones. In an adult, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But in an infant, one whose brain is developing at a rapid rate and relies on glucose for fuel to aid that development, the implications are murky at best.

As with any diet or lifestyle change you implement as a new or breastfeeding mom, before you start the keto diet, discuss it with your doctor and pediatrician. There are certainly modifications you can make (plenty of people live “keto-light”) in order to make it work for you. The most important thing is that you’re making your health and the health of your baby a priority.

(Image: iStock / ThitareeSarmkasat)