Home #ScaleFreeBaby Q&A Wednesday: Breastfeeding and Weight Loss

Q&A Wednesday: Breastfeeding and Weight Loss

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: I am currently nursing my 9 month old daughter and am trying to lose the rest of the baby weight. (About 15 pounds.) I gained 45 during my pregnancy and the first 30 pounds came off relatively easily, mostly by eating sensibly. I have been stuck with these last 15 pounds for almost 5 months now. No matter what I try the scale does not budge. I have returned to running (currently a couple miles a day) and I eat very clean the majority of the time. I have tried to cut down on carbs (even though I only eat whole grains). I have tried eating less in general. The only result I get is that my milk production plummets for a few days until I resume my “normal” eating routine. I don’t know how much I should be eating either. During the day I constantly feel like I’m playing catch up. I eat something healthy, then my energy level plummets (and let’s be honest I get suuuuper irritable). Honestly, I’m tired of thinking about food. Obviously my main concern is that my daughter is getting everything she needs from me, but I can’t help but want those pounds gone. Am I being unrealistic in my expectations? Or is it simply a matter of needing to work harder? Just wondering if you might have some suggestions that won’t jeopardize my milk production.

In looking at your question, there are three things that jump out at me: 1) you’re irritable; 2) your energy levels are low; and 3) your milk is plummeting. All bad.

Let’s talk, really briefly, about calorie consumption and carbs. When you’re not getting enough calories, your body begins to shut down or slow down less-than-vital processes in order to keep you alive (also referred to as “starvation mode” in the average fitness magazine.) This includes, unfortunately, milk production.

With regard to carbohydrates, they’re directly linked to your mood. While it’s true that too many carbs on a consistent basis can become an addictive substance because of the mood enhancement they can provide (and, by “too much,” I mean upwards of 60% of your diet when you’re not an endurance athlete), not getting enough carbs actually results in the irritability you speak of, here. Mood swings are a constant challenge with people who cut carbs too much (and, by too much here, I’m referring to carbs making up less than 25% of your regular caloric intake) and who cut sugar down to virtual nothingness. If all you’re eating is brown rice and chicken three times a day… woe be unto your palate, sis.

That irritability is double troublesome for someone with an infant – the noise never stops, the crying never stops, the need never stops, the conflicting duties, the frustration… oy. You need your wits about you – something that is virtually impossible on a very low carb diet.

Now, I’m nobody’s lactation consultant, and though I’m nursing #BabySprout, I’ve definitely had my fair share of struggles with it. That being said, as someone who specializes in women’s fitness, there are three things in weight loss that I can tell you for sure affect milk production: water intake, caloric intake, and stress levels.

Milk production is a metabolically active process. In other words, it burns calories. The more frequently you nurse, the more frequently your body produces milk, the more calories it burns. And, because it burns calories, it is a process that – just like exercise – must be considered in your daily caloric intake and must be fueled.

Estimates put breastfeeding at burning anywhere from 300-500 calories a day. You’ll need to add that number to your estimates for your non-nursing body at that weight. This is the number that you should be working towards in your intake for not only maximum production, but so that you don’t throat chop everyone in your life because you’re so irritable. You might not get the total amount in daily, but aim towards it in a healthy fashion, anyway, and you’ll start to see a difference.

Also, regarding carbohydrate intake. This is a process best served by a respectable percentage of carbs in your diet.

I know, I know. But they’re not the devil they’ve been made out to be, when you use them to your advantage.

Incorporate some fruit in your diet – some berries with your oatmeal (also suggested as an aid in producing more milk, known as a galactagogue), or some fruit atop a veggie-heavy salad with some quality protein on top. Find a way to include a little fruit in your diet at different intervals throughout the day.

While you might not want to drink a gallon of water – and, really, no one should – you should never get to the point where you’re thirsty, and that’s something that happens often if you’re really grinding when you’re working out. The milk production process requires fluids, and since this process is triggered every time you nurse – remember, your breasts begin to make more milk as soon as you extract milk, either by way of leakage or nursing or pumping – you lose fluids each time you begin to nurse.

Stay hydrated. Incorporate water breaks in your exercise activity, and take them seriously. Whenever you’re nursing, keep The Big Cup of Water nearby, and sip it while you feed your baby.

Annnnnd stress. Stress over the final few pounds. Stress over the loss of milk for your lovely little one. Stress because you can’t figure out the food nonsense. Stress, stress, stress. Just stop. Stress also inadvertently triggers the “starvation mode” and, ultimately, results in weight gain. Not to mention, it can also impact your milk production. Just take deep breaths. Be active because you need to be, eat because your body needs to be fueled, and nurse because it bonds you and your baby, on top of giving her so much that’ll help her immune system and more. Try, for now, to take the stress out of the equation.

If I were you, here’s what I’d do: I’d plug my nutritional intake into MyFitnessPal and figure out how many calories I’m eating, as well as the percentage of carbs in my diet. I’d increase that carb percentage up to 45% slowly – maybe 5% each week. I’d increase my caloric intake slowly, again, 5% each week. I’d cut my workouts in half, since the calories burned during the workouts are also eating up calories I’d otherwise be saving to fuel milk production. I’d keep up with this until I reached a point where the numbers I was working with actually caused me to gain weight instead of just maintain. The goal, here, is to find out the maximum amount that I could eat while producing adequate milk and maintaining my weight. My ideal number would likely be the numbers prior to the last increase. (I hope that makes sense.)

Once I found an equilibrium that allowed me to make the amount of milk I needed and maintain my current weight, that’s what I’d use as my starting grounds for any training or cuts to be made. It might sound crazy, but remember – we’re trying to find hard numbers because we’re making permanent changes, not yo-yoing around all over the place.

Most importantly, try to expel milk as often as you can. Nurse more, pump more, whatever – if you can squeeze in an extra session somewhere, do it. You might not be producing as much at a time, but you certainly may be able to produce milk more frequently.

Most importantly, take this info and talk to your local lactation consultant – that’s what they’re there for. Even though you might not be able to absorb the cost of a one on one session, many host small group sessions for less than the price of a fitness class to answer questions (If you’re in NYC, you can check out www.nylca.org for lactation consultants and classes near you; if you’re in Brooklyn, check out Chanel at Ancient Song Doula Services in Bed-Stuy.) The information I’ve shared here might be helpful, but your body is unique and different, and you want the guidance of a trained lactation professional to help you get to where you need to be, and console you throughout the process (I might be available via twitter at @bgg2wl, but I’m caught up with my little one right now, too!) and help you if there might be something else going on here, too.

All in all, making slow tweaks to increase your food intake, increasing your pumping, and drinking plenty of water will help you make the improvements you need to meet your little one’s needs. Take it slow—your body (and your baby!) will thank you for it!

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D. October 14, 2015 - 4:20 PM

I can say that for me and for my sister, both of us are slender and neither of us lost one ounce while breastfeeding. It burns so many calories that we needed to eat more to sustain the milk. Once we weaned the babies, the weight melted right off. It is not true for everyone that breastfeeding causes weight loss. Perhaps you just reached the point past which you can’t continue to lose until you stop breastfeeding. Not to belittle your feelings of frustration (I totally felt the same way), but just eat what you need to feed the baby and know that the rest will be easier to lose once you are finished breastfeeding.

Kpeerep October 18, 2015 - 8:40 PM

I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to answer my question at such length. I will put all of your suggestions to use, but mainly to chill out! I guess I have been so much inside my own head, that I have not taken a step back and really assessed my stress levels. The level of support that you give to all of us truly leaves me humbled. Thank you so much for doing what you do!

Roxanne October 19, 2015 - 2:25 AM

When I am nursing I am more concerned on the nutrients I will be giving to my baby than my own body. Don’t get me wrong, I am still conscious on the food I am eating, but I am not stressing on the weight I gained since I am too busy tending my little angel’s nutrition. I have increased my protein intake and eat foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids. I discovered that foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids are great for my baby’s brain development. I make sure to eat lots of fruits, veggies and healthy fats. I will resume in going back to losing weight once I am done in my breastfeeding duty 🙂

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