Getting back to pre-pregnancy weight is high on the agenda of many new mums. I get asked a lot whether it is safe to go on a diet straight after giving birth, particularly if you are breastfeeding. While you shouldn’t put any pressure on yourself or try to rush weight loss (and I would definitely advise against any crash diets or excessive caloric restriction), it is possible to achieve weight loss safely by eating a healthy balanced diet and exercising lightly. Eating healthily will also give you the energy you need to look after your baby.
Weight gain during pregnancy
Before we get into weight loss, let’s talk about weight gain during pregnancy. Weight gain is a natural part of any healthy pregnancy and gaining too little or too much weight could put mum and baby at risk of health problems. There are no evidence-based UK guidelines on how much weight you should gain during pregnancy. The Institute of Medicine in the US advises that if you are a healthy weight (BMI 18.5-25) pre-conception, you should put on between 11.5 and 16kg during pregnancy. If you are underweight you should gain a little more and if overweight or obese you will need to gain less than that.
In reality the amount of weight gain varies greatly between women. Only some of the extra weight is actually due to increased body fat. Much of the weight is related to the baby and natural physiological adaptations to support pregnancy including the weight of the placenta, amniotic fluid (protective fluid around baby), increased blood volume and larger uterus.
Weight loss after giving birth
At birth, you will lose the weight of the baby, amniotic fluid and placenta and by 6 weeks, blood volume has reduced to pre-pregnancy levels and the uterus has returned to its normal size. Particularly in the first 2-3 weeks post-partum there is usually a large amount of weight loss, this tends to plateau after 6 weeks. Any excess weight remaining after this time is mainly from body fat stores.
While some mothers will find that breastfeeding and looking after their baby are enough to shed the extra weight, for most women it can take 6 months to a year before they get close to their pre-pregnancy weight. The postnatal stage can be a great opportunity to review your eating habits as you might be particularly aware of your own health and your family’s health and wellbeing too.
Tips for safe weight loss after pregnancy
1. Have realist expectations
Aiming to lose 0.5kg to 1kg a week is a realistic and safe target after the initial drop in weight in the first 6 weeks. Setting achievable goals is important as it will boost your confidence in your ability to carry on.
2. Breastfeed if you can
There are so many benefits of breastfeeding for mother and baby. It may also influence weight loss due to the energy cost of producing milk. However, this could easily be offset by an increase in appetite during lactation, so you still need to pay attention to your diet.
3. Follow the 50/25/25 plate rule
At meal times aim for 1⁄2 of your plate to be vegetables (the more variety the better), 1⁄4 of the plate to be lean proteins (i.e. chicken, fish, lentils, beans, tofu, etc) and 1⁄4 of plate to be carbohydrates (i.e. quinoa, sweet potato, brown rice, pasta, etc). This will help to make sure you are eating plenty of fibre and protein, both of which may help with appetite control. This will also help to meet your needs for vitamins and minerals.
4. Avoid sugary foods and refined carbohydrates
Go easy on cakes, biscuits, pastries and sweet spreads. Try and avoid added sugars as much as possible including honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar etc (these are often promoted as ‘natural’ sugar alternatives, but all sugars behave the same in the body, and importantly have the same number of calories too).
5. Have healthy nourishing snacks at hand
This is particularly important if you are breastfeeding and may include smoothies, protein balls, Greek yoghurt with berries, mixed nuts and seeds etc.
6. Keep things simple
There is nothing wrong with cutting corners, you don’t need to cook all meals from scratch to eat healthily. Make use of healthy food boxes, healthy frozen meals, prepacked/tined/frozen fruit and vegetables.
7. Slowly build physical activity into your routine.
If you had a straightforward birth you will be able to start with gentle exercises as soon as you feel up for it and can include things like a daily walk with your baby,stretching and pelvic floor exercises. If you had a complicated birth or a caesarean seek advice from your GP or midwife.
Remember it took you nine months to gain the weight and it will likely take you time to lose it. You might also find that your body shape has changes even when you achieve your target weight, and that is ok! Growing and birthing a child is hard work and the postnatal period is one of major physiological, psychological and social changes so try to be kind to yourself.