They are the genetic lottery winners; the less than 10% of women who seem to effortlessly return to their pre-pregnancy weight in just a few months after childbirth. But for the overwhelming majority of us, postpartum weight loss trudges along at a (too) slow, and often uneven pace.
It’s in the Genes: Why It Takes a While to Lose “Baby Weight”
Women store extra energy-reserves late in pregnancy as a hedge against possible disasters that might cause food scarcity. It’s like an insurance policy that has helped us thrive as a species. So it makes perfect sense that your body would not want to “empty the pantry” directly after childbirth. It’s to our genetic advantage to have energy stored as fat, at the ready, so that we can fully nurture our newborns.
Healthy Weight Loss Expectations
Typically, women who gain the recommended 25 – 35 pounds during pregnancy will lose about 15 pounds at delivery, and then drop another 4 to 6 pounds of water weight in the first week or so, leaving them about 15 - 20 pounds over their pre-pregnancy weight a one month postpartum. Then the rate of weight-loss slows to about 2 to 4 lbs. per month.
To insure steady weight loss, you need to eat enough to support your metabolism while at the same time creating a small, daily, caloric deficit so that you regularly use a small amount stored fat to support breastfeeding.
Succeed with the Perfect Pregnancy Pounds App
Use the Perfect Pregnancy Pounds App after your baby is born, to identify the ideal number of calories that you should consume, whether breastfeeding or formula feeding, to slowly and healthily lose any extra pounds.
Maintain a Postpartum Healthy Diet
Ideally, on learning that you were pregnant, you became conscious of sound nutritional guidelines, and you began eating the healthiest and highest-quality food available. You also strove to consume the right amount of calories for your individual metabolism. Now, in your postpartum months, you should continue with these healthy habits.
But even if you weren’t able to eat a super healthy diet, over gained, or find time for regular exercise, you can still make profound changes in your lifestyle. It’s never too late to change course and set off in a healthier direction and achieve your weight loss goals.
Food quality is as important as the total number of calories consumed. Eating lots of low quality calories triggers a chemical response in our brains, which over-rides feeling of fullness and satiation. Low nutrient foods leave us feeling unsatisfied and can change the balance of “good bacteria” in our guts. Binge eating and foods cravings are often triggered by nutritional imbalances. Habitually eating a low quality diet causes a duel state of being over-fed and under-nourished.
Weighty Matters: A Healthy Perspective
As a postpartum mom, don’t forget that not all of the additional weight reflected on the scale can be attributed to extra “baby fat.” If you gained the proper amount of weight during pregnancy, then at three months postpartum you may find yourself in the range of 10 to 15 pounds over your pre-pregnancy weight. But, only a portion of that derives from extra stored fat. You are, after all, operating an around-the-clock milk factory, and that alone requires more breast tissue, fluids, other tissues, and additional energy stores.
Breastfeeding Speeds Weight Loss
During the first few postpartum weeks, lactation requires about 300 calories per day, or about the same amount of calories that you needed in the third trimester. Then as your milk supply increases as your baby grows and consumes more, the caloric demand of breast milk production slowly rises and peaks at six months post pregnancy to about 500 calories per day. Your metabolism stays elevated until your baby is eating a substantial amount of her calories from solids, or if you stop breastfeeding. The average calorie cost of breastfeeding for one year averages to about 400 calories per day.
Over the course of one year, breastfeeding women will use almost 146,000 more calories than mothers who formula feed. This equates to an additional 42 pounds worth of energy. This gives breastfeeding women a clear and powerful advantage in their weight loss goals, as compared to women who do not breastfeed. Breastfeeding women are known to be more likely to return to their pre-pregnancy weight, and at a quicker rate, than women who formula feed.
Of course weight loss is far from the only reason to breastfeed. Breastfeeding supplies many important health benefits to both your and your baby.
Healthy Weight Loss = Slow Weight Loss
In order to lose weight, you need to create a small – no more than 500 calories per day – energy deficit on most days of the week. Ideally, you want to create this deficit with about half coming from increased activity, (plus 250 per day) and half (minus 250 per day) coming from diet.
Fitting in fitness is a challenge for most new moms, as caring for a new born while tending to other children or work obligations can quickly leave little time for exercise. New moms who cannot find time to exercise regularly will need to create an energy deficit through diet alone.
Beware of very low-calorie diets, or fad diets, because they often disregard the principals of healthy, balanced food intake. While these diets may move the scale quickly, they do so at the expense of our lean mass ratio. When you lose more than one pound per week, then about ½ of that weight can come from lean tissue.
Quick weight loss is especially dangerous for women, as we have proportionally less lean mass per body weight then men. Loss of lean mass lowers resting metabolism, which makes continued weight loss more difficult, and rebound weight gain more likely, when calorie restriction stops.
Lean Mass Ratio a Marker of Health
A healthy body has an ample amount of well-toned muscle tissue, dense bones, and a healthy percentage of fat storage. Athletic women should have about 14 – 20 % body fat, where as average women should have about 20 – 25 % body fat.
Extreme Low-Calorie Diets Especially Harmful to Postpartum Women
Taking in too few calories has many side effects that can be particularly harmful to women during the postpartum period. When you restrict calories too much, several undesirable physiological adaptations occur.
The Drawbacks of a Diet with too Few Calories
Severe calorie restriction:
- Reduces the amount of lean tissue in the body and lower basal metabolic rate, thereby inhibiting weight loss.
- Causes or exacerbates fatigue.
- Negatively impacts mood and sleep patterns.
- Reduces energy levels and motivation for physical activity, perpetuating sedentary lifestyle habits.
- Infant intake of breast milk declines in mothers who consume less than 1500 calories per day for an extended period.
- May slow infant growth and development.
How Calorie Restriction Slows Metabolism
If you’re sedentary and on an overly restricted diet, then up to half of the weight that you lose will come from protein in your muscles, not stored fat. Slowly, over time, your muscles and bones will lose strength and density. Erosion of muscle mass, in turn, lowers basal metabolism because muscles burn more energy at rest than other tissues. Additionally, reduced bone and muscle mass is one of the hallmarks of aging, and places women at much higher risk for developing osteoporosis, or brittle bone disease, later in life.
You may initially find this bizarre, but in order to loose excess fat, you will need to make sure that you eat enough to prevent muscle loss and metabolic slow down. Our metabolisms are superb at adjusting to environmental factors. Lowering your intake too severely triggers an energy-conserving response where the body dramatically lowers resting metabolism, sometimes referred to as the “starvation response.” Through thousands of years of genetic adaptation to cyclical famine, our ancestors who were most efficient at hording calories during lean times survived and reproduced.
Unfortunately, our bodies cannot discern the difference between intentional extreme dieting for weight loss and famine-induced calorie deprivation. Regardless of the reason for caloric restriction, when your body perceives that it is not getting enough food over an extended period, it reacts by slowing down its metabolism.
Insufficient Calorie Intake Causes Fatigue
For new moms, a big downside to hardcore dieting is fatigue. When your metabolism lowers, so does your energy level. A new mother is already exhausted from disrupted sleep cycles and 24/7 infant care, and other family obligations. The last thing mom needs is more fatigue. Fatigue undercuts the motivation to be physically active, so women who crash diet are more likely to be sedentary.
Dieting Negatively Impacts Mood
Dieting creates a negative mindset and is as much a psychological, as a physical, stressor. Without a doubt, dieting zaps the pleasure out of eating. Most diets have a long list of taboo foods, which create the temptation for the “forbidden fruit.” Restrictive diets are almost impossible to maintain, which sets the stage for “failure,” yet again. Guilt ensues.
On the other hand, a nutrient-rich diet, in the right quantity, is enjoyable, guilt-free and health enhancing.
The fatigue caused by extreme dieting can make us short-tempered, reducing our ability to handle the day-in and day-out stresses of parenthood with grace and ease. In this way, dieting inhibits our best selves, diminishing our capabilities and effectiveness as mothers.
Potential for Depression
When you add up the damaging effects of lowered metabolism, fatigue, lack of motivation and negative mindset, this begins to sound a lot like depression. Although postpartum depression cannot be directly linked to poor nutritional choices or chronic dieting, clearly the overall stress of dieting and reduced nutritional status may worsen a depressed state or add to a woman’s risks for depression.