So, my first blog back since popping out number three (sounds so easy) and I’m choosing a topic that has divided opinions of the sports science industry for years. The general assumption is that breastfeeding accelerates post natal weight loss and, if we start with some figures, the conclusion we reach seems, on the surface, uncomplicated.
Breastfeeding is said to burn between 300 and 800 calories a day which is an equivalent calorie burn of biking moderately for 45 mins to 75 mins. So if we were to eat our normal approximate caloric intake of 2000 calories a day, such a large proportion of that energy would be consumed by breastfeeding that we should lose weight and lose it pretty quickly at that.
Unfortunately things can get complicated for a number of reasons. Firstly, many health care professionals urge the breastfeeding mother to increase her daily caloric intake by 500 calories, thereby significantly decreasing any deficit achieved. This, taken alongside the fact that many people slightly overeat on a daily basis anyway, means that many mothers will simply break even on the whole energy in / energy out equation meaning that no weight is lost.
During pregnancy the body is hormonally set up to store fat, largely to ensure adequate energy stores to feed the baby once it arrives. Bearing this in mind, it makes little sense to overeat when breastfeeding when the fat stores are already there. There are between 3500 calories and 3700 calories in 1 lb of fat meaning that most women, who have gained an average amount of weight during pregnancy, have plenty of stored fat with which to feed their baby and by the time this stored fat begins to run low, the baby will start solids. Theoretically, then, we can eat our normal diet and shed the pounds but there are a couple of spanners in the works; breastfeeding makes us feel hungry and caring for a tiny baby makes us tired meaning that it is all too easy to reach for the foods that are quick energy release and comforting: carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are by no means the evil dietary component that they are often branded to be but when it comes to accessing fat stores, putting quick release carbohydrates in the system means that the following process occurs:
Carbohydrates ingested – sugars enter the bloodstream – insulin is released to move sugars in to muscles and liver and any excess in to fat stores – insulin remains in the system and acts like a padlock on fat stores, preventing the fat from being released.
In summary, when insulin is produced too often, caused by over consumption of starchy carbohydrates, fat is very easily stored and cannot be burnt until insulin levels reduce again.
Some of the answer to the hunger / sleep deprivation / carbohydrate / insulin problem while breastfeeding is, simply, will power. We have to eat the right foods at the right times. Start the day with a good portion of slow release carbohydrate, include a little fibrous carbohydrate with lunch and make sure the evening meal is based on protein and veg. Drink lots and lots of water because it is an essential part of the fat burning chemical reaction. The new mother is also fighting against hormones when it comes to fat loss; when you are forced in to sleep deprivation which obviously happens when getting up for night feeds, an over production of the hormone cortisol can occur which is linked to fat storage, Once the baby sleeps longer at night, weight loss will be quicker.
Cutting calories while breastfeeding is not advised as it can diminish milk supply. Increasing activity levels, however, will burn calories and stoke metabolism meaning that you will release fat from the stores more efficiently. Exercise is absolutely key to facilitating fat loss while breastfeeding.
So don’t rely on breastfeeding alone to shift the weight because for the reasons outlined above, it doesn’t always happen. Eat smart, drink water and exercise and the pounds will begin to disappear. And more importantly than anything else, enjoy every moment with your little bundle of beautiful baby.