You just had a baby. Your new curves that were recently celebrated for bringing life into this world are now something you feel pressure to get rid of immediately. The media shows celebrity moms quickly returning to their pre-baby weight, setting the unrealistic expectation that women should rapidly return to their pre-pregnancy bodies. The pressure to bounce back to pre-pregnancy weight can be a source of stress and anxiety for postpartum women, on top of the other natural new stressors they are already facing from being a new mom. While it may be tempting to start dieting, intentional rapid weight loss can lead to both physical and emotional consequences. Deliberately focusing your energy on postpartum weight loss can lead to unintentional outcomes for recovery, breastfeeding, and emotional well-being. This post will discuss why you shouldn’t try to lose the baby weight fast and what to prioritize instead.
Consequences of Rapid Weight Loss Postpartum
After the first week of delivery, women naturally lose about 10-15 lbs from the weight of the baby, placenta, and amniotic fluid. This is normal weight loss and not an area of concern. The next few sections are specifically referring to the consequences of intentional fat loss following the first week after delivery.
Focusing on weight loss can increase recovery time from pregnancy. Your body just went through a major change, it needs time to heal (1). Many women don’t realize that postpartum nutrition is just as important as during the prenatal period. It is especially important if you had a surgical delivery or perineal tear during delivery. Nutrient needs increase postpartum to enable your body to recover from giving birth. If you are restricting calories in order to lose weight, you may not be able to support the energy demands of tissue repair and wound healing or meet your nutrient needs to support a healthy postpartum recovery.
Eating whole foods rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, folate, zinc, and protein can help support your body during postpartum. Vitamin A and C are important for wound healing and postpartum recovery (2,3). They are also antioxidants that are important for a strong immune system (4,5). Iron and folate can help prevent anemia and balance your mood (6,7,8,9). Eating sufficient iron can help you feel energized and help your body fight sickness (10). Zinc plays an important role in regulating every step of the wound healing process and supports immune system function (17). Protein is essential for tissue growth and repair. However, both calorie and protein needs must be met in order for the wound healing process to take place. Without sufficient calorie consumption, protein won’t be able to be used for tissue repair (18). Because of this, it’s important to consume enough calories postpartum.
In addition to focusing on eating nutritious foods, give your body time to rest when possible. Once cleared with your healthcare provider, you can begin incorporating light exercise into your day that feels good.
It’s important to eat adequate calories to support lactation. While increased calorie needs are often emphasized during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, this increased calorie intake is also necessary during lactation.
Nutrient needs increase during lactation. Maternal intake of certain nutrients, including vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, and D, as well as choline, iodine, and DHA impacts their concentrations in breast milk (11,12). Some of these nutrients, particularly choline and DHA, are critical for baby’s brain development. Other nutrients, including calories, protein, folate, calcium, iron, copper, and zinc, are relatively unaffected by maternal intake (12). However, the body will sacrifice the mother’s stores of these nutrients in order to make the optimal milk for the baby. Consuming a low-calorie diet could lead to insufficient nutrient intake and negatively impact maternal nutrient stores as well as nutrient composition of breast milk.
The purpose of this information is NOT to deter mothers from breastfeeding. Regardless of diet, a mother’s milk is still the best food for her baby. Breast milk contains immunoglobulins (antibodies) and is rich in easily digestible protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Furthermore, breastmilk composition changes as the baby ages to best fit its nutritional needs. The purpose of this information is to explain that trying to lose weight quickly postpartum is not optimal for both mom’s nutrition and for breastmilk.
Diets Don’t Work
While dieting may lead to weight loss in the short term, it often leads to weight regain in the long-term. Studies have shown that one-third to two-thirds of dieters actually gain back more weight than they originally lost on the diet (13). This is because weight loss diets are largely unsustainable and lead to biological shifts in the body.
First, weight loss diets are restrictive and require the dieter to restrict calories and possibly certain foods or even entire food groups. This can lead to suboptimal nutrient intake resulting in an array of health consequences. It can also lead to feelings of deprivation, which can cause uncontrollable cravings, and lead the dieter to overeat foods that are forbidden on the diet. This fluctuation typically results in weight regain, feelings of guilt and failure, and repeating the cycle again.
Second, when you go on a diet, your body adapts as a starvation defense mechanism. Your body learns how to function at a lower energy level, thus decreasing your metabolism. Furthermore, hormonal changes occur. Leptin, the body’s satiety hormone, decreases after dieting. Ghrelin, the body’s hunger hormone, increases after dieting. Peptide YY, which suppresses hunger, also decreases after dieting (15). These factors make it incredibly challenging for a dieter to sustain weight loss after a diet. Interestingly, studies have shown that one of the biggest predictors of weight gain is actually going on a weight loss diet (14).
Ultimately, dieting can have both health and emotional consequences. Dieting often leads to weight regain, which may trigger the dieter to go on yet another diet. This weight-cycling, or continually losing and gaining weight, may increase the risk for developing certain health conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes (16). Additionally, dieting can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, and failure. Furthermore, it can negatively impact a person’s relationship with food and lead to poor body image and low self-esteem (16).
What Should You Do Instead?
Focus on Nourishment
Instead of dieting, focus on nourishing yourself with nutritious foods. Food isn’t meant to be manipulated to achieve a certain body size. Rather it is a powerful form of self-care for your body. When you are properly nourished, you will feel energized and like your best self. When you feel your best, you can take better care of your little one.
Start your day off with breakfast to kick off the day feeling energized. Even if you’re not hungry, having a small, balanced breakfast will start your day off on the right track and prevent you from feeling overly hungry later in the day.
Focus on eating balanced meals that contain adequate amounts of protein, fat, and fiber. Eating balanced meals will not only provide your body with a variety of nutrients, but will also keep you feeling full for longer. When you feel satisfied, you are less likely to grab for convenience foods.
Don’t skip meals. Food, after all, is the fuel for our bodies. It keeps us feeling energized so you can take on whatever the day throws at you. Skipping meals can lead to low energy and make you more likely to reach for unhealthy convenience foods later in the day. Set yourself up for success by eating balanced meals and snacks about every 3-4 hours.
Stay hydrated. If you are breastfeeding, it’s especially important to stay hydrated. Try keeping a water bottle near where you feed your baby to remind yourself to hydrate throughout the day (1).
Improve Body Image
If you are struggling with your postpartum body image, you are not alone. Many women struggle with body image during the postpartum period. Your body has changed. It is not the same body as your pre-pregnancy body and that’s okay. This body gave you your child, which is one of the most important things in your life. Appreciate your body and all of the amazing things it has done. At the same time, be gentle with yourself. It took months to put on the baby weight, it may take awhile to find your new normal.
There are some actions you can take to feel better in your postpartum body. First, wear clothes that fit. You deserve to feel comfortable in your clothes today. Not when you reach a particular point in the future. It’s really hard to feel good about your body when it feels constricted or uncomfortable. Instead, focus on wearing clothes that fit and are comfortable. Next, reflect on the value of yourself as a person and your body outside of its size or weight. Expanding the scope of what matters to you can help move away from the tunnel vision on weight. It’s really hard to go from hating your body to loving it–and you don’t have to. Strategies to aim for body neutrality and acknowledgment of your feelings are powerful places to start.
The amazing thing about body image work is that it doesn’t just benefit you, but it has a profound impact on your kids as well. The truth is, kids notice everything, including your negative body image. The best way to empower your little ones with a strong positive body image is to start with yourself.
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- Tansarli GS, Karageorgopoulos DE, Kapaskelis A, et al. Iron deficiency and susceptibility to infections: evaluation of the clinical evidence. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis. 2013 Oct;32(10):1253-8. doi: 10.1007/s10096-013-1877-x.
- “Maternal Diet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 Sept. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/diet-and-micronutrients/maternal-diet.html.
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