Q&A: mom eating nothing but junk food

A reader I'll nickname "Sunshine," who wrote me a few months ago about easing her encroaching PPD, writes:

I have another question for you but it's more general, sort of to see what your opinion is since the opinions I've found on the internet (Mothering.com, babycenter.com, kellymom.com and elsewhere) vary widely.  I searched your archives and couldn't find a similar question, but I apologize if I missed it.

The question is, do you believe it's detrimental to eat junk food while BF?  I started out eating a great diet and really tried to hold the line on trans fats since I know they pass into the milk, but for the past few months (depression?) I have been eating increased amounts of processed and fast foods.  I mean, I eat fast food pretty much every day now.  I still take supplements - a multivite with iron, probiotics, and Omega-3's (right now: cod liver oil) but I basically eat like crap.  Almost no fresh fruits and veggies and I never cook at home; the best I can do is Annie's Organics meals.  :-(  I feel so guilty about it but can't seem to pull myself out of the cycle.  On Mothering.com I have basically been made to feel that I am poisoning my baby and that she would be better off with formula.   Anyway, I have a feeling I'm being defensive at MDC about the issue because I suspect they are right.  However Kellymom disagrees.  I so want to believe Kellymom, but...

I feel like a bad mother in so many ways right now...but this has been weighing on me...

So, I just wanted to get your opinion.  Also, I think I am finally going to see someone about the depression.  I have been avoiding it because I hate dealing with mental health professionals.  Hate it, hate it.  And I'm not sure (from prior experience) that there is much they can offer me.  But I have to do something; I'm becoming more and more apathetic and my daughter deserves better.

In the past when I suffered depression it was all-consuming.  I find that this is not the case with what I am experiencing now.  My daughter brings me much joy, and I am not living under a black cloud.  But still, I do not feel right - I have little energy and am very critical and crotchety and feel hopeless and overwhelmed almost every day, and like I'm not a good-enough mother.  So that is depression, right?"

Honestly, I think it's malnutrition, with a sweet lacy overlay of depression.

I don't know how detrimental it is to your milk to eat nothing but junk food while breastfeeding. I do know that breastmilk has benefits formula will never have even when it has high concentrations of PCBs or other chemicals and even when the mother smokes. Breastfeeding is a robust process. We're designed to feed our babies even under horrible conditions. Women kept and keep their children alive breastfeeding in concentration camps, in droughts and famines, in refugee camps. Unless you're taking drugs that will hurt your baby or are in danger of passing HIV to your baby, your milk is always the best choice from a health standpoint.

However, your milk is going to be better quality the better you eat. We know that cows' milk from cows that eat grass instead of grain is higher in nutrients and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). We know that eating oatmeal increases the quantity of human breastmilk. Anecdotally speaking, I know of someone who was pumping and when she started taking alfalfa (the leaves, but mashed into tablet form) she noticed her milk had a thicker cream layer than when she wasn't taking alfalfa. Babies prefer to drink milk that is flavored with garlic that their mothers have eaten than milk without garlic flavors. It just makes sense that the better the food that goes into your mouth, the better the food that comes out of your breasts.

Junk food and fast food are addicting. It doesn't surprise me one bit that you feel powerless to start eating better--those foods are designed by the manufacturers to make you want to eat more and more of them. It's like being addicted to a drug. But you're going to have to struggle as hard as you can to work yourself free. It's the only way you're going to feel any better.

Any responsible mental health professional is going to ask you about your lifestyle and diet before prescribing any medications. And s/he isn't going to prescribe anything without also asking you to get back on track with your diet as soon as possible. Anyone who does prescribe meds for you at this point without looking at your diet is only going to do you a disservice. Yes, in the short term you might feel better (although many anti-depressants take a few weeks to kick in fully), but unless you start eating better and taking care of yourself physically and emotionally, you're going to get weaker and more drained and lifeless and you'll have to keep upping your dose.

So call to make an appointment, but start changing your diet today. That way, by the time you get in to see the doctor or therapist you'll have a truer picture of your mental health. You'll know how much of what you're feeling is depression and what is because you're not giving your body the fuel it needs to keep you mentally healthy and full of energy. If you do decide to go on anti-depressants, they'll work that much better because your body will be healthy and functioning better.

You can do this. You can change your diet. For yourself and for your daughter.

After you read this, have a little cry. Then pack up your daughter and go to the grocery store. While you're there I want you to buy:

  • a bag of baby carrots
  • a pint of grape tomatoes
  • a bunch of broccoli
  • 2 cucumbers
  • 2 bell peppers
  • a bunch of bananas
  • 6 apples
  • a tub of garlic hummus
  • some crystallized ginger
  • a package of frozen peas

Cut up the cucumber, broccoli, and bell pepper as soon as you get home from the store and leave them in a Tupperware in the refrigerator. Before you seal the top of the container, eat a few pieces.

In the morning when you wake up, drink a big glass of water and eat a banana. Then get out a handful of baby carrots, a handful of tomatoes, half a cucumber, some spears of broccoli, and half a bell pepper. Put them on a plate in the living room or playroom or wherever you spend time with your daughter. Try to eat a few bites every half hour or so, either nude or dipped in the garlic hummus.

If you do end up going to a fast food place, force yourself to order a salad, or at the very least get lettuce and tomato on your burger. (Pickles, while delicious, don't count as vegetables.)

When you hit the 3 o'clock slump, eat an apple (with peanut butter or cream cheese, if you want) and a few pieces of crystallized ginger.

While you're cooking your mac and cheese, grab a big handful of frozen peas and put it in the bottom of the strainer. When you pour the pasta through the strainer the water will thaw the peas and the pasta will heat them up. Toss them together with the cheese sauce so you have mac and cheese and peas.

If you just eat a little bit of any kind of vegetable at a time, before you know it you'll have eaten 5 servings a day. In a few days you'll start to feel a little better, and a little more energized. You might find the strength to stay away from the fast food places and eat better meals.

I know so many of us have been stuck in a trap of needing to use food to regulate our moods, even when we know the foods are just making things worse. If you can just take baby steps and keep checking in, we can help you get out from under the junk food depression. I wish I lived near you and could just bring you a big salad and some pasta primavera and a hug.

You're a good mom. All you can ever do is the best you can at that moment. You're having a crappy time right now, but you're still the perfect mother for your daughter. Things will get better.