Healthful eating is important for everyone, but it's especially critical if you've just had a baby.
Your body is recovering from childbirth and needs a steady supply of vitamins and minerals to heal. What's more, with a new baby in the house, you're undoubtedly fatigued, and you need healthful foods to refuel your body. And if you're breastfeeding, your baby is relying on you for crucial nutrients.
The eating patterns you set in the first six months after having a baby can help you lay a foundation of healthful eating for the rest of your life, says Eileen Behan, R.D., a dietitian in Portsmouth, N.H., who specializes in weight management for individuals and families.
We asked Behan and other experts for their top nutrition and weight-loss tips for new moms. Start following them now and you'll be well on your way to a healthier, trimmer you—from your baby's toddler to teen years ... and beyond.
1. Know your nutrient needs
Here are guidelines to the calories and other nutrients you need daily for safe weight loss and good nutrition. (Calorie needs vary depending on age, metabolism and activity level.)
If You're Breastfeeding:
- Calories: 2,200–2,400
- Calcium: 1,000–1,300 mg
- Folate: 280 mcg
- Iron: 15 mg
- Protein: 65 g
- Vitamin C: 95 mg
If You're Not Breastfeeding:
- Calories: 1,900–2,200
- Calcium: 1,300 mg
- Folate: 180 mcg
- Iron: 15 mg
- Protein: 44–50 g
- Vitamin C: 60 mg
"All these nutrients are vitally important if you've just had a baby," Behan says. "Folate is important for future pregnancies; vitamin D and calcium are vital for bone health; iron will help with anemia; vitamin C is necessary for iron absorption; and protein is crucial for building and repairing your tissues. You need even more of these nutrients during lactation for milk production and because they leave your body with the milk."
2. Stock up on healthful fast foods
Why? If they're around, you'll eat them! When you're tired, short on time and hungry, it's tempting to grab a bag of chips and a soda—if they're handy. "But you want to be able to open the refrigerator door and grab something healthful that's ready to go," Behan says.
Some suggestions: low-fat and fat-free yogurt; low-fat deli meats; low-fat or fat-free pudding made with milk or containing 30 percent calcium (especially good for quelling chocolate cravings!); part-skim cheese sticks; prepackaged sliced fruits and vegetables; ready-made salads; cooked whole grains such as brown rice; whole-grain cereals, breads and pastas.
With healthful foods readily accessible, you'll snack less on chips, candy or white-flour-based, highly processed munchies, such as cookies and cakes. "They're usually high in salt and low in fiber," Behan says. "They're also irresistible, and it's easy to eat an enormous amount." So do not keep too many of these foods in your larder.
No time to grocery shop? Ask friends, neighbors and relatives to take turns bringing you healthful food from your list every few days. This way, you'll take care of your nutritional needs and get a dose of companionship—a godsend in those first few weeks. "Yes, nutrition is important," says Mavis Schorn, C.N.M., M.S., a nurse-midwife at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville, Tenn. "But so is having some social interaction, if only for 10 to 15 minutes." (You also can grocery-shop online and have healthful food delivered to your door: visit HomeGrocer.com, Netgrocer.com or Peapod.com.)
3. Eat often, eat enough
Behan recommends three meals, plus two to three snacks per day. Between meals, "graze on fruits and vegetables and lean protein sources," says Doreen Chin Pratt, M.S., R.D., director of outpatient nutrition services at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I.
Here's why eating frequently is important: If you're breastfeeding, you need enough calories to fuel milk production. "It's very important for breastfeeding moms to get enough calories [to make] breast milk, the baby's sole source of nutrition," says Cheryl Lovelady, Ph.D., R.D., a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an expert in breastfeeding and weight loss.
Drink lots of water, too. You need energy. Eating often will help keep your energy up at a time when it's probably pretty low. It will help you lose weight. "You have to eat well—and often—if you want to lose weight, or you'll be hungry all the time," Behan says. "And there's a limit to how long you can go hungry." If you're overly hungry, you're likely to binge on sugary foods for energy.
4. Pay attention to what your body says
Debra Waterhouse, R.D., M.P.H., a dietitian in Orinda, Calif., and the author of Outsmarting the Female Fat Cell After Pregnancy (Hyperion, 2002), suggests that you ask yourself the following questions when you feel the urge to munch: Am I really hungry? If so, give yourself permission to eat. If not, are you just tired or bored? Rest, call a friend, take a walk, pick up a bestseller—just don't eat because you can't think of anything else to do. What am I hungry for? Sometimes it's better to satisfy a craving instead of trying to distract yourself with other foods, Waterhouse says.
"If you crave ice cream but pick something healthier, you'll eventually break down and have the ice cream—after you've already eaten the yogurt, then the nuts, then the cheese." Is my hunger satisfied? "Most people don't check in with themselves—they eat what's on their plate, and that's that," Waterhouse says. "Pause every five to 10 bites and see if you're satisfied and if your stomach is full but not overly so."
5. Be aware of portion sizes
Americans have become accustomed to supersized portions of everything from salad to soda. "Portion sizes have gotten out of control," nutritionist Lovelady says, "and people feel cheated if they go out and get a [formerly] normal-size meal." Behan agrees. "It's not the occasional piece of chocolate that's going to keep you from losing weight," she says. "It's sitting down with the whole box and devouring it."
6. Load up on fluids and fiber
Constipation is a common problem for many women post-delivery. To prevent it, drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of fluids a day, and even more if you find yourself feeling thirsty, especially if you're nursing. Water is a good choice, but you also can opt for fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk, and up to 8 ounces a day of 100% fruit juices that contain important nutrients, Chin Pratt says.
Sugar-free soft drinks (decaffeinated is preferred) can be included as part of your fluid intake but are nutrient-deficient.
As for fiber sources: "The gold standard is fruit, veggies and whole grains, but sometimes that's not enough," midwife Schorn says. "If you're still having problems moving your bowels, try drinking lemonade or warm liquids such as herbal teas. And if that fails, try Grandma's old standby: prunes and prune juice."
If you're breastfeeding, any high-fiber food that gives you gas also might make your baby gassy, some experts say, so beware of the most common culprits: cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and beans.
7. Avoid fad diets
The problem with most diets is simple but vexing: They cut calories so drastically that as soon as you've lost the weight and resume your normal eating patterns, the weight comes back—and then some.
Many of the latest diets also restrict healthy carbohydrates (such as whole grains and fruit)—a no-no for many reasons. "Whatever you do, don't cut carbs," Waterhouse says. "Your body needs them in every way—they're typically fiber-rich, they help you feel full, and they're your brain's main energy source.
Cut out healthy, complex carbs and your body will go into full-blown exhaustion." But do cut carbs such as white pasta, bread and rice. If you're hell-bent on following a specific plan, our experts say Weight Watchers is a reliable one because it emphasizes behavior modification and a slow weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week. Try their plan designed for breastfeeding moms.
8. Go easy on yourself
It can take a year or more to lose the pregnancy weight. "You need to think of pregnancy as an 18-month experience: nine months of gestation, nine months postpartum," Behan says. "This is a time when there's a lot happening—you're adjusting to your new life, your body is trying to replenish itself after pregnancy, you've gone through labor and delivery, and you may be breastfeeding. It's a lot to adjust to, so don't beat yourself up if you're not bouncing back as quickly as you'd like."