Newborn resting. Soft focus, Adobe RGB.

It is normal for a woman’s fat stores to increase significantly during pregnancy. However, after giving birth, most women are keen to lose this extra fat as soon as possible. The additional calories that breastfeeding uses will help shed some of this excess body fat, but most women will also need to watch what they eat and be more active in order to return to their pre-pregnancy weight.

How soon after giving birth can I start trying to lose weight?
You should wait until you have had a post-natal check-up with your doctor before you start actively trying to lose weight. This normally happens six to eight weeks after giving birth. Giving your body this time allows it to recover from giving birth and ensures that you will have the energy to look after your newborn baby. Many women find that they naturally lose weight after giving birth although they are not actively trying, especially if they are breastfeeding.

What sort of diet should I go on?
It is important that you resist the temptation to ‘go on a diet’ and instead simply focus on eating as healthily as you can and being more active, where possible.

How long will it take to return to my normal weight?
Although many celebrities seem to regain their pre-pregnancy figure by the time they leave the maternity hospital, the reality for the average new mother is very different. The length of time it will take will depend on the amount of weight gained during pregnancy, but as a general guideline you should aim to return to your normal weight six months to one year after giving birth.

Is it safe to diet while breastfeeding?
Yes, as long as you aim to lose weight very gradually and avoid crash dieting. A safe rate of weight loss is 1 lb or 0.5 kg per week. Breastfeeding combined with a healthy diet and regular exercise is a very effective way for you to lose weight post-pregnancy.

Does it matter if I don’t return to my normal weight?
Yes. Excess weight gain during pregnancy and failure to lose weight after pregnancy are key predictors of long-term obesity. It is especially important to return to a normal weight prior to becoming pregnant again because being obese increases the risk of complications during pregnancy.

Mother breastfeeding, nursing her newborn baby

Losing or gaining weight is all to do with energy balance.

An understanding of this process is needed in order to design an effective post-pregnancy weight-loss plan.

Energy intake and expenditure
We provide our body with energy through the food we eat. The energy value of food is measured in calories. Our body uses the energy we get from food to fuel its physiological processes such as the beating of the heart, the functioning of the digestive system and the production of breast milk. It also provides fuel for any physical activity we undertake, whether that be making a cup of tea, or going for a run.

Gaining fat
If we consume more energy from food than our bodies are burning off, the excess energy gets stored in our body as fat and this results in an increase in weight.

Losing fat
If we consume less energy than our body needs, our body will be forced to use its fat stores in order to compensate for the shortfall. This results in a decrease in fat stores and thus a decrease in weight.

Achieving an energy deficit
The best way to achieve an energy shortfall, or deficit, is to reduce energy intake from food and increase energy expenditure through exercise. If energy intake can be reduced by 250 kcal per day and energy expenditure increased by 250 kcal per day this will result in an energy deficit of 500 kcal per day.

Over the course of a week this deficit will lead to a loss of roughly 1 lb (0.5 kg) of body fat. This is an ideal rate of weight loss post-pregnancy. Losing more weight than this would require a higher kcal deficit and this might impair a new mother’s nutrient intake, leaving her tired and more prone to illness.

Reducing calorie intake

Reducing energy intake from food by roughly 250 kcal per day should be realistic for most women and if coupled with an increase in activity levels will lead to a safe and steady weight loss of about 1 lb (0.5 kg) per week.

Fill up on fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are generally low in calories. Consuming fruit as a replacement for other high calorie snacks and ensuring that a dinner plate is always half-filled with vegetables will mean that fewer calories are consumed, even though the actual volume of food is the same.

Use a smaller plate
It is surprising how much something simple like the size of plate can affect the quantity of food we eat. Switching to a slightly smaller dinner plate is an effective way of reducing portion sizes and thus calorie intake.

Go for wholegrain
Wholegrain or brown versions of cereal, bread, pasta and rice have a higher satiety rating, which means they help you feel fuller for longer.

Food swaps
Choosing lower calorie versions of foods such as mayonnaise, cheese, dressings and spreads can help cut calories. However, be sure to check the label as some foods claiming to be ‘lower fat’ or ‘fewer calories’ are not significantly lower in calories than the original versions.

Adapt recipes
Recipes can be adapted so that ingredients high in fat and sugar are replaced with more healthy ingredients. For example yoghurt can replace cream in a meringue and a pie that is normally topped with mashed potato can be topped with a mixture of mashed potato, carrot and swede.

Check labels
Eating 250 kcal less per day is a lot easier when you know exactly what 250 kcals is. It is important not to become obsessive about counting calories but occasionally checking food labels can be a real eye opener. Many well-known restaurant and coffee chains have the calorie content of their products on their websites and this can be used to plan menu selections before a trip out.

Exercise and activity
In addition to reducing your calorie intake, you should aim to increase the number of calories your body burns each day by being more physically active.
The following are popular suggestions for new mothers who want to be more active:

  • Go for a brisk walk with the pram or buggy
  • Join a post-natal exercise class
  • Go for a swim or join a mother and baby swimming class
  • Buy an exercise DVD that is tailored for women wanting to lose weight after giving birth
  • Get the help of a personal trainer who is qualified in post-natal exercise

Benefits
Looking after a newborn baby can be physically exhausting so taking more exercise is often the last thing on a new mother’s mind. However, physical activity at this time has a number of benefits in addition to weight loss, including helping the body recover from childbirth, aiding relaxation and improving overall energy levels.

Caution
In order to ensure your body is ready to cope with the stresses of exercise, it is advisable to wait until your six week post-natal check-up before starting to exercise. If you have had a caesarean delivery you will probably need to wait longer than this.