Can You Safely Lose Weight While Breast Feeding?
This blog was originally published in the New York Times.
“Make sure breast-feeding is established before starting any weight loss plan,” said Cheryl Lovelady, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, who studies postpartum weight loss. She encourages women to take time to recover from childbirth and check with their doctors first.
Studies show that exercise alone is not effective for postpartum weight loss for most women; it’s too easy to make up for calories burned by eating more. A better bet is to reduce calorie intake – along with exercise, which helps you lose more weight as fat and less as muscle. Exercise also improves cardiovascular fitness and metabolic health, and can be good for mental health.
“It’s very hard for me to recommend dieting alone,” Dr. Lovelady said. “You don’t feel good with dieting, but you feel good after a brisk walk.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking or easy cycling) per week for postpartum women.
It’s safe to lose one or two pounds a week, studies led by Dr. Lovelady and others have found. But more rapid weight loss could cause a drop in milk supply and increased fatigue, the last thing a new mom needs. To be sure that the baby is getting enough milk, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises watching for changes in your baby’s weight gain, diaper output and feeding behavior.
For breast-feeding women trying to lose one pound per week, Dr. Lovelady suggests decreasing calorie intake by about 500 calories per day, with a total intake of at least 1,800 calories. The Department of Agriculture’s SuperTracker website is a good starting place for creating an individualized diet plan that takes into account calories needed for breast-feeding, and women can adjust their plan depending on their results.
Dr. Lovelady warns breast-feeding moms to avoid very low carbohydrate diets. You need dietary carbohydrates to make lactose, the sugar in milk. Otherwise, any dietary pattern can work, so focus on foods that you enjoy and that make you feel satisfied, not deprived. Plan snacks that are easy to grab and eat with one hand (the other being occupied by the baby), like an appetizing bowl of fruit and nuts on the kitchen counter.
Everyone, but particularly breast-feeding women, should use caution with weight loss supplements, said Philip Anderson, a professor of pharmacy at the University of California, San Diego. They’re poorly regulated, and they may be contaminated with harmful ingredients. Some herbal ingredients can also interfere with milk production or affect the baby’s health. “I would be very cautious with those,” he said.