Breastfeeding & Dieting
So. I get a lot of email from Alpha Mom 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.
Can 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.
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!!!) 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
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. USE 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 go.
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.”