Whenever anyone utters the words postpartum nutrition, the conversation almost always turns to weight loss. It’s as if the primary indicator of a new mom’s health and worth is the size of her body and it’s comparison to a pre-pregnancy version. I’d argue that this assumption isn’t just a gross oversimplification, it’s actually harmful to women in several key ways.
Let’s explore some of the biggest ways that weight loss pressure postpartum hurts new moms:
- It compromises recovery. After delivery, the body has to undergo an intensive healing process. Internal wounds, torn vaginal tissue, and cesarean section scars all require repair. Lactation also requires significant energy and nutrients for breast milk production. Couple these higher needs with the depleted state after a pregnancy and it becomes clear that the nutritional focus in the first couple of months (and arguably longer) should be on eating enough to support these intensive physical processes. Focusing on weight loss puts recovery at risk because insufficient calorie, protein, or micronutrient intake could delay the healing that is needed.
- Perpetuates the false assumption that weight equals health. Health is so much more than the number on the scale, however this isn’t the message we’re constantly hearing. Returning to pre-pregnancy weight doesn’t reflect a new mom’s nutrient levels, mental health, hormone picture, chronic conditions, or a myriad of other factors. Neglecting these other aspects in pursuit of weight loss can have damaging implications on overall health.
- Can lead to restriction and disordered eating. Dieting often involves cutting out or limiting certain foods. This can result in unintentionally missing out on important nutrients. It can also influence your overall relationship with food, creating rules to follow and guilt when rules are broken. Sometimes it can have even more serious consequences especially for those with histories of disordered eating or eating disorders. The body changes of pregnancy and postpartum combined with a weight-focused messages can be triggering, causing potential relapse into disordered behaviors.
- Devalues the postpartum body. Taking a bigger picture look, we also see the underlying message communicated through all the postpartum weight loss pressure. Your changing body was beautiful in pregnancy…but afterwards please erase all signs that you even had a baby, and do it fast. It’s pretty outrageous when you really think about it. Moms aren’t given the space to just be. To recover, to adjust to this new identity and life stage, and to allow their bodies to regulate to a place that is right for them.
It’s really important to clarify that weight changes postpartum are completely normal. Many women do lose weight after childbirth and this can be a very healthy process. The key consideration is to avoid prioritizing weight. It’s the pressure to lose weight, and some of the maladaptive steps often taken to achieve that result, that is the true issue. Instead, recognizing that regardless of body size, you are worthy of care and that there are concrete steps to take to improve your health completely independent of the scale.
So if weight loss isn’t the primary focus postpartum than what do nutrition goals look like in the fourth trimester? Here are three goals that shift the focus:
- Adding nutrition at each meal. Instead of thinking about what to avoid, focusing on ways to bring more nourishment to your meals is one of the best ways to improve overall diet quality. This can take many forms, it might be adding in a veggie, or a fiber-rich grain, or some healthy fats.
- Relearn your body cues. Pregnancy and postpartum create huge fluctuations in appetite and food preferences so take some time to get reacquainted with what signals your body is actually sending. If you’ve dieted in the past as well this process can take a little longer as you learn to eat based on internal cues versus external ones.
- Surround yourself with support. Think about both the physical environment in the form of a stocked pantry and freezer, a nursing snack station, and a serene resting space for mom. This could also include meal trains, a postpartum doula, dietitian, or connecting with friends and family to plan how they can offer assistance. You can also think about reducing aspects that don’t support a positive postpartum experience like media consumption that perpetuates diet culture and negative body image.
The months after having a baby should be centered around nourishing and supporting the new mama. It’s high time that we reframe the focus away from getting your body back and start giving moms the tools to care for your (frankly amazing) body NOW.