By Stacy Kennedy, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N., C.N.S.D.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
As much as you want to see it happen, losing weight after having a baby can seem impossible. Research from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology demonstrated that women retain an average of 14 pounds eight to 10 years after giving birth.
How can you shed those additional pounds when you're always exhausted? And where can you find extra time and energy to prepare healthy meals and exercise?
Slow and steady is the prescription. Rapid weight loss is not recommended. Strive to slim back down to your pre-pregnancy weight during the six to 12 months after the birth of your baby. During the first three months, experts recommend focusing on eating healthy foods and starting to be more physically active. Don't "diet" because you need the energy to support breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding IS Best
Not only is it healthier for your baby, it helps to keep your metabolism up and your weight down. After the first month postpartum, mothers who breastfeed lose more inches around their hips and more body fat compared with mothers who formula-feed.
Research also shows that breastfeeding mothers return to their pre-pregnancy weight sooner than those who don’t breastfeed.
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Diet and Exercise: A Winning Combination
According to a study from the University of California at Davis, a combination of wise nutrition choices and physical activity is the best way to lose fat gained during pregnancy while maintaining your muscle mass.
The Institute of Medicine and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists report that exercise is safe during lactation. It won't decrease your milk supply as long as you drink plenty of liquids.
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Quick and Easy Nutrition Tips
Finding time to shop, prepare food and eat is quite challenging for a new mom. Keep things simple but healthy.
- Eat small, frequent meals. Make sure to have an afternoon snack.
- Eat lean protein with each meal and snack, such as low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese and natural nut butters.
- Listen to your body's cues. Many foods you may have craved during pregnancy are no longer needed to help manage symptoms.
- Be a mindful eater. Eat slowly and put your utensil down between bites. Try to focus on the texture and taste of your food and good conversation, rather than TV, during meals.
- Watch portion sizes, especially for carbohydrate-rich foods such as pasta and rice. Try to keep these to one-half cup and stock up on vegetables instead. Cut down on portions when eating out by sharing a meal, saving half for the next day, or ordering from the appetizer menu as your main course.
- Switch to low-fat or low-calorie versions of condiments such as salad dressing and mayonnaise.
- Eat five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. They provide essential nutrients for you and your breast milk, but generally are low in calories. One serving of a fruit or vegetable is one-half cup, one piece of medium fruit or one cup of leafy greens.
- Keep healthy snacks with you at all times. Keep some in your diaper bag, car, at your desk and next to your nursing chair/station. Good ideas include:
- Nuts and dried fruit
- Natural peanut or almond butter on celery sticks or whole-grain crackers
- Skim-milk mozzarella cheese sticks
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Cut-up vegetables with hummus
- A smoothie drink
- Low-fat yogurt with one tablespoon of ground flax seeds
- Hard-boiled egg
- Whole-grain cereal with fresh berries and skim milk or soy milk
Don't restrict your calories too much if you are breastfeeding; your body needs 500 additional calories over your basic energy needs. Just remember that you don't need to eat much to get those extra 500 calories. The calories can add up quickly, so choose wisely.
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Get Moving — With and Without Your Baby
Be physically active every day. Physical activity refers to moving around more in your everyday life. This can be more realistic for many people than committing to a rigid exercise schedule that requires more time.
- Walk your baby instead of driving! Many parents know that driving your baby around can help calm fussiness or help with sleeping. The same is true for walking. Use a baby carrier or stroller and walk your baby around the neighborhood, your yard or your house as often as you can, especially if he/she is fussy and feeding or changing hasn't helped.
- Walk your dog and baby at the same time. Put your baby in the carrier and you'll have the added resistance of your baby and the dog pulling you on the leash.
- Try to go out on several short walks each day if one long walk isn't realistic.
- Wear a pedometer. People who wear pedometers tend to walk extra 2,000 steps each day. Calculate your baseline steps at the end of the day for one week and then increase your steps each week by 10% until you're walking 10,000 steps a day or more.
- If you return to work, take short breaks and walk up some stairs, around your office or outside. Park as far away from entrances as you can and use stairs instead of elevators.
- Walk around while you're on the phone or thinking of new ideas; dance around your kitchen while you're cooking dinner.
- Find a friend or moms' group to help you stick to a walking or exercise schedule.
- Do abdominal exercises with your baby lying on the floor right next to you. Or you can opt for stretching, yoga, Pilates, etc.
There are many health-related reasons that women should work on losing the weight gained during pregnancy, other than the desire to get your body back. Set realistic goals for weight loss. Keep in mind that the weight will come off but it does take time. Be persistent. Most importantly, listen to your body, be healthy and have fun!
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Stacy Kennedy, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N., C.N.S.D. is senior clinical dietician at Dana-Farber Cancer Care/Brigham and Women's Hospital. She completed her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital and received her Master of Public Health in Nutrition from the University of North Carolina.