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Dear Steph,

I’m struggling to eat well postpartum and it’s negatively impacting my mood. What changes can I make to my diet to improve my mood? – Cherry, one of our member mamas

Dear Cherry,

I get it. The constant demands of motherhood require you to rethink your old meal planning and preparation strategies. Gone are the days when you had entire weekends to yourself to shop, cook, and clean-up. But, just because you’re more pressed for time and energy doesn’t mean you have to completely forgo choices that make you feel good. In fact, by taking care of yourself and eating nourishing foods, you’re giving back to yourself, your new little one, and your partner.  You’re supporting your intention of being a mom who is thriving and able to take care of herself and those she loves.

The connection between food and mood

First off, kudos to you, mama. You’ve noticed that the foods you’re eating are negatively impacting your mood—something many people aren’t even aware of! By identifying that connection, you’re already on your way to fixing the problem. If you’re familiar with the Whole30, you have a solid understanding of what foods can be inflammatory.

If you’ve done a Whole30 with a proper reintroduction, you’ve likely identified which foods do not work for your body and can use that information to build a plan to get out of this food funk. If not, a Whole30 may be a great place to start as we now understand that inflammation is involved in the pathogenesis of depression and mood disorders1.

In addition to avoiding foods you’ve discovered don’t work well for your body, another player in mood stability is blood sugar regulation*. And if you had gestational diabetes or are struggling with blood sugar control, this is even more important**.

The connection between blood sugar regulation and mood

Think back to the last time you had a really sugary breakfast or skipped a meal because you were caught-up in “momming.” Chances are you felt anxious, jittery, and irritable a few hours later , and for good reason. Your blood sugar tanked and your body was screaming at you to eat something nourishing that would elevate your blood sugar back to baseline and get your body out of survival mode.

I’m guessing that because you were feeling anxious, jittery, and irritable you didn’t sit down to a beautifully prepared kale salad with wild salmon at that meal. You probably grabbed whatever you could get your hands on (or one-hand on, while feeding your baby) and slammed it down before you even thought about what you were eating or how much you really wanted.

And thus, the vicious blood sugar roller coaster has left the station. You eat something high in sugar or an unbalanced, unfulfilling meal, which causes your blood sugar to crash, and then you eat something quick to get your blood sugar back up to a more comfortable spot. In this situation, your blood sugar often overshoots due to the type and volume of food you ate. By the end of the day, you’re exhausted, but your body is fighting sleep due to improper hormone signaling and hunger.

Day after day, this cycle can wear on you. The high cortisol levels that accompany this blood sugar dysregulation (and often new motherhood, in general) make it hard for your brain to say “no” to sugar. Additionally, creating balanced meals that include veggies, protein, and healthy fat often feels less manageable when you’re in the front row seat of the blood sugar roller coaster. However, there’s a way to unbuckle your seat belt and get off the ride before the next lap around the track begins.

Start with breakfast

Please hear me when I say that I understand how tough it is to make changes to your diet. Add a baby (or two) into the mix and behavior changes can be even more challenging. However, if I can encourage you to try one new thing that can positively impact your mood it would be to start with breakfast.

Starting your day with a low-glycemic, antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory meal is a great way to set the stage for stable blood sugar and mood throughout the day. Consider how you feel after eating a bagel and orange juice versus a few eggs, smoked salmon, sautéed greens, and sliced avocado.

With the second option, not only would you feel much more satisfied and able to focus on taking care of yourself and your little one until lunch, but you’d be including nutrients in that breakfast that are often depleted during pregnancy2, such as omega-3 fatty acids and selenium (in the salmon), B-vitamins, choline, and Vitamin D (in the eggs, especially the yolk), as well as trace minerals and antioxidants spread through that meal.

If you’ve stopped taking the supplements that you were on during your pregnancy (such as a prenatal, fish oil, and vitamin D), I’d consider continuing on with them (with approval from your provider), especially if you’re nursing. Many nutrients are actually in higher demand while nursing than in pregnancy3, and you want to ensure you’re replenishing any lost stores.

If you’re already eating a breakfast similar to the above, look at your next meal or snack. Assess what you’re doing right now and see what simple steps you can make towards balancing your meals to include a nice blend of protein, carbs, and fat from whole food sources. Yes, a piece of fruit or a Larabar is a whole food choice, but it may not work well for optimizing your mood and blood sugar levels.

Take shortcuts, like using frozen vegetables and pre-made condiments from Primal Kitchen, or The New Primal to make things easier. You can even consider making a lower-sugar smoothie or ordering pre-made meals from companies like True Fare and Territory Foods. You can search for what’s available in your area on the Whole30 Approved site.

As a mom of two boys who personally struggled with a postpartum mood disorder and a dietitian who works with hundreds of new moms, I know how important diet is for feeling your best postpartum. Eating well is not a luxury; it’s a necessity for handling the ups and downs of motherhood. While it’s important to give yourself grace and enjoy your food freedom, your mental health is incredibly important. If you’re really struggling or feel like there’s no way you could even consider eating healthy right now, please reach out for help.

Want more inspiration? Check out some success stories from our member mamas and consider joining our pregnancy program community. We’re all doing our best to create a smooth postpartum experience without spending hours in the kitchen. We’d love to have you join us!

Notes and Sources:

*Neurotransmitter tests done on women with insulin resistance often show high levels of norepinephrine and low levels of serotonin.
**If you had gestational diabetes or want to check your blood sugar levels, I recommend getting a metabolic dysglycemia test which is a comprehensive test that assesses your fasting blood sugar and insulin levels, post-meal blood sugar level, and much more. You can work with a functional medicine practitioner and/or dietitian to rectify the blood sugar imbalances through food, exercise, and supplementation.

Stephanie Greunke is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition who specializes in women’s health. She is a certified personal trainer and prenatal and postnatal corrective exercise specialist. Stephanie guides and supports women locally and globally through her web-based private practice,