Choosing to breastfeed is a very personal choice for a woman, made based on what she feels is best for her baby, her body and her lifestyle. But I’ll bet you also heard it is an awesome diet.
While I was pregnant, every woman that inquired about whether I would breastfeed or not seemed to say, “Oh good, the weight just falls off you!” Sweet! I had a minimal weight gain with both pregnancies, but while I was pregnant with my first I remember thinking: great! Sounds like that last 10 will be a breeze. Uh-huh, not for me. In fact, I stayed stuck for almost a year.
Breastfeeding & Your Hormones
Like I mentioned last week, breastfeeding and menopause have a lot in common for many women. While some women do have a cycle while they breastfeed, others including myself, don’t.
The following hormonal and fat loss trouble is true, especially for those women not cycling while breastfeeding: low estrogen and low progesterone.
Simply put: high prolactin from nursing will lower your estrogen, lack of ovulation will lower progesterone.
While estrogen dominance gets a bad rap for making us fat, the truth is we need enough estrogen to keep a lean and tight body (think less body fat, more lean muscle). Without it we have a less forgiving metabolism largely due to lack of temperance of insulin and cortisol (more about mastering these two fat loss hormones here.)
In addition to low estrogen, if we aren’t ovulating, we also aren’t making much progesterone. Progesterone plays a role in hindering belly fat storage by moderating cortisol’s effect in these fat cells. Take this low estrogen/low progesterone state and we see much more sensitivity to carbohydrates and a much harder time dropping belly fat – and fat in general.
Couple that with the lack of sleep and losing fat in the belly area can be very challenging. When we’re running on empty from the middle of the night feedings and often highly stressful time of having a newborn, we’re typically in a high cortisol state – ingredient #1 for belly fat.
And when we’re exhausted from being up all night, our cravings for carbs and sweets are usually off the chart. If we indulge them, then we’ve added ingredient #2 for belly fat: high insulin.
This scenario is the perfect storm for difficult fat loss and easy fat gain, just what a new mom needs huh? And those cravings aren’t just from the lack of sleep. Estrogen normally helps us have more serotonin and dopamine, and progesterone keeps GABA up. Healthy levels of all these brain chemicals keep our cravings at bay. And making matters worse, estrogen normally aids the hormone leptin in regulating appetite.
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Pair this hormonal picture with common breastfeeding dieting adages like: breastfeeding demands an extra 500-700 calories per day and we can have a fat loss struggle on our hands. This article actually uses the phrase “there’s more leeway for indulgences.”
But given the hormonal picture for many breastfeeding mothers, that advice is a recipe for more weight gain, not weight loss.
Case in point: Dr Brooke. I read this breastfeeding demands an extra 500-700 calories per day business. I translated that into, “It’s Ok if I eat that cookie or drink that honey chai latte cuz I’ve got 500 extra calories to spare!” This surprised me a bit about myself because I never really gave into the “eating for two” notion during pregnancy. But this caloric leeway coupled with my 1-2 hours on average of sleep per night and I was caving to sugar big time. Not to mention, those first few months with my first baby were among the most stressful of my life.
The lack of sleep; the anxiety, fear and constant wondering, “Is everything OK with my baby??“, trying to run my business and of course the curse of motherhood: am I doing a good enough job?? It’s no wonder we reach for a chocolate bar now and again, it is an incredibly difficult time when hormones and emotions are all over the map.
Why Its Harder For Some Women
Obviously, not all women experience difficult weight loss with breastfeeding.
Take my friend Leslie who was able to sit back, let the pounds fall off and enjoy her big bosoms. For those of us who found/find fat loss during breastfeeding a really tough struggle, hearing stories like Leslie’s just makes us want to cry. (But what doesn’t make us cry during those first few months??)
It’s important to remember, if your metabolism is stubborn before pregnancy, it likely will be afterwards as well.
This is certainly the case for me. The low estrogen and progesterone make my metabolic issues even worse. So is there just no hope for us? Of course there is, but it helps to get clear on what we’re dealing with.
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Given the hormonal landscape of breastfeeding (low estrogen, low progesterone) and the likelihood of less sleep (high cortisol) and potential to be eating more carbs and sweets than we can tolerate (high insulin), you can see where the deck is stacked against us.
Here’s some advice that will help:
- Don’t give yourself a 500+calorie justification for eating not so good for you foods, like me and my chai lattes. Eat more good foods: more protein, more healthy fats instead of more muffins and ice cream.
- Your time is limited so work out smart: walking with baby napping in stroller, short metabolic circuits at home or your gym for optimal hormonal balancing fat loss. Skip the longer duration cardio and too much intense exercise. Low estrogen makes the long duration stuff less effective and the high cortisol can make the intense stuff back fire.
- Don’t focus on cutting calories or on eating less, your main job really is to nurture your baby – let’s not lose sight of that as we vie for more weight loss.
- Instead focus on more support foods: vegetables and lean proteins; as well as more activity. Move as much as you can. Do 10-20 body weight squats several times per day i.e. while you’re waiting for your tea water to boil, as baby sits there cooing at you, anytime you have 1 minute do a pelvic floor lift, tight abs and squat away. Dance with your baby. Walk as much as possible instead of driving or park further way (10,000 steps a day is a great goal). Jaunt up and down your staircase quickly and frequently. Play at the park. Live the Dr Brooke Mommy mantra of “Do as much as you can, as often as you can.”
- Consider a lower carb, higher fat diet. The lower carb aspect will keep your insulin more managed while the higher fat intake will keep your calories up and keep you satiated. Overall you’ll likely feel more satisfied and won’t risk dropping calories to low your milk supply drops. Remember, low carb is all relative. Find your unique carb tolerance here.
- Trust that it will likely get easier after you stop nursing. I was pleasantly surprised that my fat loss got so much easier literally the week I stopped breastfeeding. This is a time to own your breastfeeding choice. Sure it may be easier if you weren’t breastfeeding, or hadn’t just had a baby, but these were our choices – for better or worse.
- And skip the guilt. So many women feel wracked with guilt that they are complaining about feeling chubby while they are also experiencing the joy of a beautiful baby. I’ve fallen prey to this as well, I mean how shallow am I to worry about my waistline when so many women can’t even ovulate well? Here I am with my adorable baby girls and I’m whining about being fat?? Both can be true: you can want to feel good about your body again and be insanely grateful for your baby. They aren’t mutually exclusive. But keep perspective and use the gratitude you feel for having your little bundle fuel you to make BETTER choices for yourself when it comes to food and exercise.
- Do that hard, hard thing of making time for yourself. If you’re exercising, eating better and finding a few moments for self care you will be much better able to care for yourself and your family. They need you, so you need to be in a good place.
- Finally, some of the lack of progress in your midsection has nothing to do with fat but rather a structural issue. During pregnancy your abs were stretched, your ribs began to flare out to the sides as your growing baby pressed up under your ribcage, and your pelvis likely tipped forward as your low back tried to deal with the big baby belly. All of this postural mess will make your waist look wider – not to mention your core and pelvic floor much weaker.
Although you weren’t prescribed physical therapy the day you left the hospital for all these significant issues, you should’ve been! We all should’ve been.
I’ve written about my struggles with this and I’m thankful to say I’m doing so much BETTER. If you haven’t addressed your core and pelvic floor – even if your baby is a couple years old – do it! Fellow Girls Gone Strong Advisory Board member, Jessie Mundell has a new program that I’ve been following with great success. Get it here.
What If It Is Still Hard?
Pregnancy is no joke when it comes to shifting your hormones. Pre-existing hormonal issues can rear their ugly heads big time after a pregnancy making your postpartum weight loss difficult.
Be sure to keep an eye on a few things:
- Is your cycle now heavier or lighter? Longer or shorter? More painful? Worsening PMS? This can indicate lingering hormonal imbalances.
- Have you had your thyroid thoroughly evaluated? Including being screened for Hashimoto’s. Pregnancy is a very common trigger for autoimmune hypothyroidism (Hashimoto’s).
- There may be nothing “wrong” with you and your doc may say all your labs are fine. While you may not have any disease or overt condition, if you’re struggling and feeling like garbage it’s a great time to find a functional medicine doctor help you sort out more subtle hormonal issues.
- Finally, remember (like I had to) if you didn’t have a six-pack going into pregnancy don’t’ expect to have one 4 months postpartum. We see celebs and other women rocking a bikini a few months after baby and wonder, “Why not us??“
I had to remind myself that while Christa’s abs are gorgeous, they’re sorta none of my business. I can be inspired by her, but not compared to her. Comparison that leads to beating ourselves up is useless – work with your hormones, your metabolism and your life. That’s the way to YOUR best post baby body. This was Christa a year after her second baby:
And above all else, don’t forget breastfeeding is temporary. Your body will be your own again some day and what you’re doing for the health of your baby is no small sacrifice.
Find a balance between taking care of yourself, feeling good in your body again and whatever fat loss feels appropriate for you given your hormones and sanity.
Most importantly, don’t lose sight of why you wanted to do this in the first place. Our bodies are changed by our babies – for better and for worse.
You can love your body again, but if you fight the realities of pregnancy and breastfeeding you’ll end up doing all the wrong things: over exercising, under-eating, and making yourself crazy. Try the suggestions in this post, get some coaching from a qualified trainer on your exercise, heal your core and pelvic floor, and if necessary, get some help with your nutrition to both feed baby and move you closer to what you WANT.
Keep nourishment, activity and spirits up! #beBETTER
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