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Breastfeeding & Dieting

Jun22

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Bounce Back ArchivesSo. I get a lot of email from Alphamom readers suggesting topics for the postpartum set, similar to the email I get for the Advice Smackdown only a little more “please don’t actually use this letter or my name because this is embarrassing or not funny enough or witty enough and have I mentioned I’m sleep deprived and hormonal and  too tired to compose a publishing-worthy email yet?”

I’d say a good half of these types of emails are dieting and weight-loss related. And most (ALL) of the dieting and weight-loss related emails fall into one of two categories:

1) Does breastfeeding really help you lose weight like everybody says? Is there any way to make sure this happens?

2) I’m breastfeeding but not losing weight, but am afraid to diet because I don’t want to starve my baby or upset my supply and I know I shouldn’t care about losing the weight so much but I DO CARE and have I mentioned I’m sleep deprived and hormonal and I don’t know how much I should be eating or not eating and I’m scared that I’m going to wear maternity pants to my child’s high school graduation bzzzzzzzzzzzzzttttttaosjkflaspckas.

So let’s talk about weight loss and breastfeeding.

1) Does breastfeeding help you lose weight? Yes. And no! Both answers, totally. Breastfeeding helps stimulate uterine contractions immediately after giving birth, which make your uterus go back to…normal? I guess is the word? So the more you breastfeed during the first few days, the faster your belly will flatten out. (Though I’m tempted to put both “faster” and “flatten” in exaggerated semi-sarcastic airquotes.) And the act of breastfeeding burns an average of 250-500 calories a day. Which is nice! But!

Some nursing moms burn 500 calories. Some only burn 250. Some probably burn more or even less. And these are calories above what you ate to MAINTAIN your pre-pregnancy weight (usually  2,000 calories a day). So if you’re above your pre-pregnancy weight, following a 2,000-calorie diet, but decide to splurge on the venti Chocolate Frappuccino with whipped cream, you’ve just nudged your daily caloric intake to 2,500 calories. You might very well burn off all 500 calories of that splurge while breastfeeding — or maybe only half of it — but you will not lose additional weight from breastfeeding alone, at that rate. (And let’s be honest, how many of us can swear we’re really sticking to 2,000 calories every day? And how many of us can really effectively lose weight through calorie counting alone? Not me, on either count.)

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that some women drop all their pregnancy weight while breastfeeding and don’t really need to do anything else. Other women will swear that their bodies held onto a stubborn 10-20 pounds no matter what they did until their babies weaned.  Other women see no impact on the scale in either direction. It all depends. Point is, though: If you’re exclusively breastfeeding and NOT losing weight, it’s not necessarily because you’re doing anything “wrong.” It’s just not enough on its own, for you. No biggie.

2) Can you diet while breastfeeding? YES. It’s all subtraction. And then some addition. Let’s say you figure a 1,700 calorie diet is what you need to shed serious pounds, combined with walking/jogging with the stroller or Shredding it up with Jillian. Map out a nice sensible diet plan around that number — maybe a breakfast smoothie, lean protein lunch, balanced dinner, whatever. Then add 250-500 additional calories BACK IN on top of that, maybe in the form of a satisfying afternoon snack, or some eggs and turkey bacon for breakfast, or extra fruit, or whatever generally fits in with whatever diet plan you’re going with. These are calories for the baby and your milk supply — they aren’t an excuse to add total crap food back into your diet like fries or sugary coffee shakes, but they can keep you from feeling totally deprived of certain foods (CARBS!!11!) and make dieting seem a little easier. (A 1,700 calorie diet for mom still means mom gets to eat closer to 2,200 calories, whee!)

(For the record, since I don’t want to sound like I’m fudging my diet-and-weight-loss timeline: I lost all my pregnancy weight while breastfeeding both times, while following a pretty sensible diet plan of one “splurge” item a day and then small healthy meals and snacks. Then I weaned my second baby and stopped paying attention and gained about half of it back. Which I’ve now lost AGAIN, using the same diet principles plus this revolutionary thing called EXERCISE. Omg, Have you heard about this yet? I think it could be a Thing!)

A few additional things to keep in mind about dieting and breastfeeding:

1) Don’t diet until your milk supply is fully established. Give yourself (and your body and your brain) at least two months.

2) Don’t consume less than 1,500 – 1,800 calories, and ramp up your calorie cut-backs GRADUALLY. It’s not healthy for you or for your supply to suddenly start crash dieting and starving yourself. That’s why I mentioned the subtraction/addition guidelines above. Subtract the calories YOU think you don’t need for weight loss and come up with YOUR caloric intake, then add the 250 – 500 calories for the BABY back in. Most of us understand that a diet of less than 1,500 calories a day is more than teetering on deprivation and disordered eating, and if you actually eat that little while breastfeeding, it’s like you’re trying to survive (and sustain a separate human being!) on 1,000 calories a day. No good.

3) Keep your weight-loss goals sensible, as in no more than 1.5 pounds a week. No Biggest Loser-type weight loss for nursing moms, okay?

4) COMMON SENSE, LADIES. I hope you’ve gotten the point by now: Dieting while breastfeeding is really no different than how you “should” be dieting any time you want to lose weight the healthy way, only there’s even more at stake to actually. DO it the healthy way. Sensible, balanced diet and exercise and reasonable weight loss goals will not hurt your baby or your milk supply. Crash dieting, deprivation, four-hour workouts, or following fad diets like low-carb or weight-loss drinks or pills or crazy restrictive “cleanses” are not the way to do it.

5) Keep taking the prenatals. A few emails I’ve gotten are from moms who seem a little stressed about dieting possibly keeping them from getting all the nutrition (vitamins and minerals) that they need for nutritious breastmilk. Part of me wants to poke them a little and point out that NO diet should result in deprivation of any essential nutrient, even just for YOU, but another part of me understands that hell, it’s hard to eat right with a newborn, and while the day may start out okay with some healthy yogurt and toast and fruit, things can go to pot by the afternoon and you’re lucky if you can find time to eat that free Belly Bar sample that’s half-melted in the bottom of the diaper bag you got at the hospital. Take your prenatal vitamins and take a load off your worried mind about whether your diet was balanced or complete enough that day and focus on foods that make you feel good and energetic (I found that almond-butter-and-honey on whole grain bread always hit the spot) rather than “well, it’s four o’clock and I haven’t eaten lunch so I might as well just eat all the leftover pizza and some leftover Halloween candy and try again tomorrow.”

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About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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15 Responses to “Breastfeeding & Dieting”

  1. Megan Jun 22 at 12:19 pm Reply Reply

    Well, there goes my last excuse to still be wearing maternity pants…

  2. Liz Jun 22 at 12:21 pm Reply Reply

    I managed to loose most of the weight through breastfeeding and general post-baby spazzy-ness (new word!). It can be so hard to get a decent meal that I tend to graze all day on whatever is around, so I try to keep healthy snacks around and fewer cookies and chips.

    Also, when the baby has his regular afternoon fussy times I take him for a walk in the stroller or tummy pack. It’s low-impact, improves everyone’s mood, and often he’ll fall asleep. Win! I figure I’m burning some extra calories doing that.

    And drink lots of water! Isn’t that a thing in weight loss too? My mom did weight watchers and they wanted her to drink lots and lots of water, and since we’re breastfeeding it’s a good idea to stay well hydrated. I drink lime flavored mineral water when I get tired of plain water.

    So in 6 months I’ve managed to lose most of the weight, but I’m not sure, because I don’t weigh myself that often. All I know is that my pre-pregnancy jeans fit! Sweet! And that muffin-top is getting smaller every day.

  3. Julie Jun 22 at 12:50 pm Reply Reply

    Well, I managed to loose almost all of the pregnancy weight by focusing on eating healthily, listening to my hunger, and the level of exercise that comes from carting around and then chasing around an infant. But it took me 9 months to a year, and the last 5 pounds didn’t go. But I figure my breasts are still a good size above normal, so that probably accounts for a pound or two of that five pounds. :)

    I have heard that it’s common for the body to try to hang on to that extra 5 to 10 lbs as a buffer zone so that if you suddenly start starving, you can still feed the baby. And of cousre, there is more tissue, fluids, etc in the breasts.
    Two things to remember – one, it took 9 months to put it on, so don’t be surprised if it takes 9 months to take it off. Plus a little because the first month or two you’re healing, not exercising. And two, just because you’re back to your prepregnancy weight doesn’t mean your body will be the same shape or anything will be in the same place. My hips and feet are defintely wider than they were before, and more weight is sticking to my hips.

  4. Taylor Jun 22 at 1:06 pm Reply Reply

    I was losing weight pretty easily the first three months post-partum and then suddenly it stopped completely and I started gaining. Despite being on Weight Watchers (they note if you’re a nursing mom and give you extra points) and walking for an hour each day. I finally went to the doctor at about five months post-partum for something else and just mentioned the whole weight gain thing. Luckily I had a sympathetic nurse practitioner who took so blood and lo and behold, it turns out that my thyroid was completely fried. Apparently, this is extremely common post-partum and easily treatable with medicine. Unfortunately, many of the symptoms of hypothyroidism mirror general post-partum awfulness (exhaustion, hair falling out, etc.). But if you’re truly working hard to lose the weight and nothing is happening, get your thyroid levels checked. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/postpartum-thyroiditis/AN00153

  5. therese Jun 22 at 3:28 pm Reply Reply

    Great post. I struggled with lasting baby weight and decided to do something about it when my son was about 6 months old. My primary issue was that I was holding onto about 15 lbs and I couldn’t fit into my regular work clothes… Anyway, I am too lazy or stupid to keep up with calories and counting and blah, blah, blah. So, I did Weight Watchers online. It was relatively cheap and a great way to track my food, activitiy, and weight in a safe way. They even have an option for calculating points for “exclusively breastfedding” or “breastfeeding + supplementing.” I was still exclusively breastfeeding when I started and the calculator put me at 28 points a day (I think). When my son began eating solids my points dropped to 24 points. I lost an average of 1 lb a week (I was also exercising) and was not hungry and my son seemed happy as well. By New Years, I was at my goal weight (WW was even doable during the holidays!) Like Amy, now that my son is weaned I have gained some weight back. I went back to Weight Watchers and my allowed points value has dropped drastically (to 19…). This is just to give you an example of how the program really took into consideration the calorie needs of a breastfeeding mother.

  6. Jessica Jun 22 at 3:35 pm Reply Reply

    I lost a ton of weight the first 1-2 weeks (like 30 pounds of what must have been water weight). The remaining 15-20 pounds came off without doing much (besides breastfeeding) over the next 2-3 months. I allowed myself one treat a day (ice cream!) and tried not to eat anything too crazy. So, by the one year aniversary of getting pregnant, I was at my pre-pregnancy weight — although by no means my pre-pregnancy shape, which is a whole other issue.

    Seemed easy. BUT, my pre-pregnancy weight was 10 pounds above my pre-trying-to-conceive “normal” weight. Those 10 pounds haven’t budged despite some half-hearted diet attempts. I’ve chalked this up to that “buffer zone” theory mentioned above. Since my son is 13 months old now and we are starting to wean, we’ll see what happens. I hope maybe I’ll start to lose. Or maybe without those bonus calories, I’ll start to gain :( Maybe it is time for old-fashioned diet and exercise.

  7. Dawn Jun 22 at 3:46 pm Reply Reply

    Since my son was born almost 10 months ago, I’ve lost all of my baby weight (~ 30lbs) and another 30 lbs on top of that. I’ve been breastfeeding/pumping for him since Day 1 so what seems to have worked for me is: 1. water. Lots and lots of water. 2. family mealtimes. Not the easiest to achieve with an infant and preschooler but since going that route hubs and I are no longer eating at 9:30 at night. 3. exercise. I take about a 2 mile walk every day during my lunch break. No change in my eating habits so that is also contributing to it (I don’t take in a huge amount of calories to begin with I guess). BUT: now I have lots of saggy skin. very sexy. Try different things but don’t starve yourself or your baby.

  8. Stefanie Jun 22 at 4:46 pm Reply Reply

    I did Weight Watchers for nursing moms as well. I was always that girl who could eat what she wanted, had never been overweight, blah blah, everyone hates that girl. But, after 9 months of getting the big piece of chicken and daily milkshakes, the weight was going nowhere. Weight Watchers worked really well for me because you can have pretty much all the veggies and air popped popcorn you like, so I cut my protein and carb portions down a bit and filled in with spinach and carrots and popcorn until my appetite adjusted and I didn’t need all that extra food. I also had to cut dairy and beef and nuts out of my diet because of the baby, and I think that helped a lot too, along with daily dog walks and a colicky baby that loved to be pushed in her stroller.

    It took me 6 months to lose the weight with Weight Watchers and nursing (40 lbs.). I just stopped nursing (baby is now 7 months) and two days after I could fit into my pre-pregnancy pants even though I hadn’t lost any additional weight. I guess my body was keeping some extra water around in my butt or something.

  9. Kat Eden Jun 22 at 6:31 pm Reply Reply

    I agree that breastfeeding and weight loss is completely individual and probably works for some more than others. BUT … so paranoid was I about it that I actually spent a good few weeks researching to find the science … and I found out it’s pretty much a myth!

    There is only ONE study (in the world!) that indicates additional weight loss from breastfeeding and it’s a measly 4.4 pounds over a year! And there are many studies indicating your body will hold fat for as long as you’re trying to support another life …. which just makes more sense to me.

    Anyway, if you’re interested, I summarised the studies here –
    http://bodyafterbump.com/the-breastfeeding-myth/

  10. Jill G Jun 22 at 8:29 pm Reply Reply

    I am about 7 months pregnant, but I know in my previous life one thing that really helped me lose weight instead of maintain is adding weights. When you have more muscle mass, you burn more calories doing everything. Just another idea if you are “stuck.”

  11. From Belgium Jun 23 at 7:04 am Reply Reply

    I am so printing this out to show to my mother, the ‘I got back in my pre pregnancy pants right after you where born, so why can’t you’ she devil.

  12. Wallydraigle Jun 23 at 10:45 am Reply Reply

    Breastfeeding hunger drives me to the brink of insanity daily. I’m certain I eat more than 2500 calories a day, but I’m still starving all.the.time. I hate it. It’s miserable. After my second daughter was born, I was skinny within a couple of days. So skinny my pre-pregnancy pants and shirts were loose on me. I was so thrilled about this. And then my milk came in, and the baby REALLY started eating, and ohmygoshmusthavefoodgivemefoooooood! I’m like a braaaains-deprived zombie. This hunger is not hunger alone. I have this DRIVE to eat that’s much deeper than hunger pangs, and I’m just not strong-willed enough to deny it. It really sucks. I’m now back to some horrifying number on the scale, despite trying to eat right and despite lots of good exercise. I’m not going to give up entirely and drink a thousand milkshakes a day or hit up McDonald’s every evening, but I’ve given up on slimming down until I’ve weaned. In the meantime, I’ll keep exercising so my heart and lungs and muscles are in shape. That way, when I am done breastfeeding, it won’t be such a chore to lose weight. The funny thing is that I don’t look that heavy. I think all my weight is in my boobs and thighs. My waist is unsightly, but not as bad as you would expect, given my weight. And the exercise makes me feel good and more attractive, even if it hasn’t actually changed my shape very much. The only reason I really care is that I have a ten year class reunion coming up this summer, and I don’t want to be known as “That skinny girl who had two kids and turned into the Michelin Man.”

  13. professormama Jun 25 at 5:20 pm Reply Reply

    Great post, it’s also really important to remember everyone’s body is different and that our bodies change.
    Taking into consideration your age, pre-pregnancy weight tendencies in terms of diet, exercise and ability to gain/lose weight is important when setting goals. Be reasonable!
    When I had my first baby I was 26 and the weight fell off, by 2 months postpartum I was back to my prepregnancy weight, then I kept getting skinnier as I continued to breastfeed, and solids at 6 months came just in time as I was getting seriously too skinny despite massive calorie intake. Then baby number 2 came along when I was 31 and the weight did not fall off so fast. I was back to my normal weight by 6 months post baby, and did not keep losing weight beyond that.  I’ve always been skinny and don’t gain weight easily, but the difference in my metabolism due to age was a big source on anxiety for me when I was wondering hat else would be different the second time around.  Eat healthy& sleep as much as possible- it’s important for lowering stress levels and leading to natural weight loss.  

  14. Meggan Jun 30 at 12:00 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you for this. I know everyone is different, but it’s still demoralizing to be the person that was overweight to begin with, gained twice the recommended amount during pregnancy, and then lost 30lbs of water weight within two weeks (I had pre-eclampsia) and haven’t lost a pound since. I now have about 60lbs to lose before I’m within “normal” weight ranges for my height, and YE GODS THAT IS A LOT. Especially since I am very short.

    I was so, so hoping that breastfeeding would help me out but so far (at 14 weeks out) it hasn’t. *sigh* Perhaps Weight Watchers is in my future?

  15. Aurora T. Agee Oct 11 at 8:31 am Reply Reply

    As a fitness professional and breastfeeding mother, I am still trying to get my behavior to match my knowledge, lol! I have read that 70-80% of the weight loss equation is diet, so that is where I should be putting most of my efforts, right? But no….I would rather spend 1.5 hours in the gym or train for a marathon to get the weight off. I am about 4 days away from completing my 1st full marathon and I will have trained 16 weeks for it. Sadly, I didn’t lose 1 pound!!! I have accepted the reality that I have to change my eating habits, especially since I am not 25 anymore :) . Even with exclusive breastfeeding for 1 year AND consistent exercise, I have never dropped weight easily, and I know the fact that I have not focused on eating better is to blame. My daughter recently stopped nursing at 2.5 and I am sure that my body is still adjusting, and if anything, I probably didn’t adjust my eating to account for the fact that I am no longer breastfeeeding.

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