The Truth About Breastfeeding & Fat Loss
"Breastfeeding an infant burns about 500 calories per day." Wow -- 500 calories? That’s like jogging an entire hour. Or a bootcamp class per day! Only… it doesn’t quite work that way.
You’ve heard it before, probably even from your OB-GYN or your midwife when she was listing the benefits of breastfeeding to you. Your mom, sister, aunt, girlfriend or coworker might have told you. Maybe you googled “baby weight” or “benefits of breastfeeding” and read it there... wherever you first heard it, chances are you've encountered the association between breastfeeding and weight loss in postpartum. Wondering why your pants are still snug?
It’s true that maintaining a supply of breastmilk in early infancy requires a woman to eat approximately 500 calories more than she normally would to maintain her own healthy bodyweight. BUT… that’s the key - it requires you to EAT those calories. If you don’t eat enough calories, you might not make the same quantity or quality of breastmilk. So dieting is not really an option when you’re breastfeeding. The LaLeche League recommends you consume a minimum of 1500-1800 calories per day in order to safely lose a healthy amount of baby weight while still providing quality milk for your little one.
The female body is an enigma. No matter how much we learn about dieting, fitness and fat loss, we are still at the mercy of Mother Nature. And she knows best.
I breastfed my first child for 23 months. When I found out I was pregnant with baby #2, I was concerned about being active, nursing my toddler and providing enough calories for my growing baby, so I decided to wean my toddler. After weaning, I actually LOST about 5 pounds that had, despite all my efforts and all my knowledge about fitness and weight loss, been clinging to me for 2 years since giving birth. The second little person I nursed for almost 3 years. When I weaned him before his 3rd birthday? You guessed it, I started losing the rest of that baby weight.
Now I'm nursing my third and I am reigning in my expectations, settling in for a long chubby period and expecting to lose those last few pounds with some hard work once I've finished breastfeeding for once and for all. And it’s not just me. Friends, clients, acquaintances have all told me they’ve experienced the same sudden weight loss during and after weaning.
So what gives?
If nursing burns calories, why do you LOSE weight when you wean? Shouldn’t the weight melt off while you’re nursing instead?
The truth is that a breastfeeding body is in many ways like a pregnant body. Hormones produced during the breastfeeding stages help a woman (without asking your opinion, mind you…) maintain fat stores to help feed her and baby in the event of a famine. Once baby is weaned, many women see a weight loss as hormone levels return to normal.
You might have a girlfriend who wore her skinny jeans home from the hospital, and the celebrity rags are, of course, filled with breathtaking postpartum transformations to make us question that second (OK, third) glass of wine at night, but it's important to remember that these experiences are not average. They are the ones we remember because they are newsworthy and because, frankly, they might make us envious, but they are not average.
The best formula for losing that baby weight is to eat according to your hunger (not your cravings, your hunger), drink according to your thirst and exercise at least 3-4 days per week with a combination of strength training to boost your metabolism and cardiovascular exercise to burn off extra calories.
And patience. The other part of that formula is patience.