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Eating Your Way Back

By August McLaughlin ; Updated June 13, 2017

While you were carrying your infant, your body needed double the typical daily requirement of iron to ensure that your baby would receive enough oxygen; more calcium and vitamin D, both of which helped build healthy bones for your little one; and a significantly higher number of calories for sufficient energy. As you consumed more food to obtain the extra nutrients, you gained weight.

Trimming down post-pregnancy is a common concern for mothers who wish to stay fit, not only for themselves but for their growing family. If you correlate weight loss with heavy restrictions, however, think again. Your best bet for attaining these goals involves focusing on healthy foods.

You have just grown and given birth to a little life! Now is the time to take things slow and take care of your body.

Megan Roosevelt, registered dietitian

A Healthy Mindset

The first step in shedding excess pounds after childbirth has little to do with calories or fat grams, said Megan Roosevelt, a registered dietitian in Portland, Oregon.

"How you think will change your perspective, actions and even your outcome regarding your overall health and weight loss," she said. "You have just grown and given birth to a little life! Now is the time to take things slow and take care of your body."

The ideal mindset, she said, involves setting realistic goals and focusing on healthy habits versus weight loss. Gradual weight loss is ideal after pregnancy, whereas aiming to speed back to your pre-pregnancy body can work against you, prompting frustration and unhealthy dieting tactics. Your lifestyle habits should be sustainable over the long term and provide a healthy example for your child, Roosevelt said.

The National Library of Medicine recommends waiting until your six-week post-pregnancy checkup before attempting weight loss -- at least two months if you're breastfeeding. Once you begin making efforts to slim down, aim for 1½ pounds of weight loss per week, allowing yourself at least several months to begin nearing your optimum weight.

The Calorie Equation

During the second and third trimesters, pregnant women require 340 to 450 extra calories per day, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, for a total of 2,200 to 2,900 daily calories. Once you've given birth, your caloric needs will drop back to a normal range -- unless you are breastfeeding.

"Nursing mothers burn an extra 500 calories per day, so take special care to take in enough calories and nutrient-dense foods," said Meme Inge, a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist in New Orleans.

Whether or not you nurse, severely restricting calories is a major don't, Inge said. That can cause nutrient deficiencies for you -- and for your infant if you breastfeed -- lethargy, fatigue, mood problems and a reduced metabolism, which can facilitate weight gain later on.

"The body is undergoing a lot of changes, so the mother should focus on losing weight very gradually," Inge said. "Focus on eating high-quality, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruit, lean protein and healthy fat."

Such foods tend to provide more satiation than processed foods, such as white bread, pretzels and sweets. As a result, you won't need to become a human calculator, measuring calories in and out. You can eat when you're mildly hungry and stop when you're satisfied.

If you aren't breastfeeding and prefer to track calories, the National Library of Medicine recommends reducing intake by 500 calories per day, or the equivalent of a 3½-inch bagel with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter and an 8-ounce glass of milk. You can also increase your caloric burn through exercise.

Helpful Strategies

For most women, focusing on better nutrition is more effective and beneficial than calorie counting. Concentrating on whole, satiating foods lets you listen to your body's cues, as your hunger and fullness signals will remain intact. Processed foods, on the other hand, can offset your blood sugar levels and appetite control.

One useful rule of thumb is to focus on getting a balance of macronutrients -- complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats -- from meals and snacks.

"Choosing a snack that is rich in protein, and energizing carbohydrates -- such as a piece of peanut butter whole-wheat toast -- is a better choice than a low-fat, low-sugar snack, such as a 90-calorie granola bar," she said. "Even if the second snack is lower in calories, go for the nutrient-packed snack. By doing so you will be more satisfied, which will help you consume less overall throughout the day."

Also emphasize calcium, iron, zinc, vitamins A, D, C and E as well as B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids.

"Eating a diet rich in whole foods -- and specifically plant-based foods -- will help you to consume a variety of these key nutrients," Roosevelt explained.

For plentiful antioxidants, consume a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Fiber-rich foods, which are highly satiating, include beans, lentils, raspberries and cooked leafy greens. Cold-water fish and flaxseed are top omega-3 fat sources, which reduce inflammation and promote heart health and normal brain function. Fish also provides rich amounts of zinc, iron and vitamin D. Whole grains, nuts and dairy products supply ample B vitamins.

Contrary to what popular diets suggest, you should not skimp on carbs, which are your body's primary sources of fuel. Focus on nutritious sources, such as brown rice, quinoa and other whole grains, legumes, sweet potatoes and yogurt. When you indulge in sweets or other processed foods, stick to modest portions and enjoy them. The occasional treats won't hurt you, but guilty feelings and responsive overeating could.

5 Steps for Success

Eating a balanced diet based on nutritious foods helps ensure optimum weight control and wellness after pregnancy. These tips will make it easier:

  1. Drink up! Staying hydrated by drinking water throughout each day promotes appetite control, as thirst is often mistaken for hunger. Fruits, vegetables and noncarbonated, noncaffeinated beverages also promote hydration. "To track your hydration, check your urine once a day," said Megan Roosevelt, a Portland-based dietitian. "If it is yellow in color, you need to drink more water. If it is clear, good job."

  2. Ask for help. With the responsibilities motherhood brings, taking care of your nutritional needs can be difficult. "Enlist the help of others by having your spouse or a thoughtful friend shop for groceries," said Meme Inge, a clinical nutritionist in New Orleans. "Or ask them to babysit while you shop for groceries."

  3. Prioritize rest. Sleep loss is a challenge for mothers of infants. It can also complicate management of your weight and wellness. Lack of sleep slows the metabolism and increases the appetite, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Sneak rest when you can, such as while your baby is napping.

  4. Exercise. While it's important to consult your doctor before beginning a post-pregnancy workout routine, Roosevelt said, staying active can reduce stress, improve sleep quality and enhance weight control and moods. Meeting the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans fitness standards takes 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days. "If exercising for 30 consecutive minutes does not work with your schedule, you can break up the activity into smaller 10-minute increments," Roosevelt said.

  5. Plan ahead. When hunger hits, you're likely to grab what's most convenient. To avoid snacking on calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods, Inge recommends making your own simple-to-grab foods. "Have one day per week where you make large batches of food to make it more convenient," she said. Bake a whole chicken to use throughout the week, and prepare a large fruit salad to snack on for several days.

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