Question everything in a sealed package.
Take advantage of your increased awareness of nutrition to learn how to read labels -- and treat yourself with the same respect as you do your child. In other words, don't eat anything you wouldn't want her to eat. In general, you're better off eating fewer processed foods and more whole foods. But for those times when you reach for a packaged snack, read the list of ingredients; if there's any hint of hydrogenated fats, put it down. These fats, also known as trans fats, can clog your arteries, leading to heart disease. And if any type of sugar (corn syrup, honey, and dextrose are among the many aliases) is one of the first three ingredients, move on to something else. Eating a high-sugar snack will just trigger a craving for more.
Choose well-balanced snacks.
Few new moms have the time to prepare and sit down to three square meals a day. But everyone has time for a handful of almonds and an apple, or two tablespoons of peanut butter on a banana. Wait no longer than two to three hours between mini meals, and aim for no fewer than six a day. If you wait longer than that, your blood sugar will plummet, you'll feel starved, and you'll make a bad decision. As a rough rule of thumb, have a snack every time your baby breastfeeds or has a bottle. This will keep your metabolism revved up, which will ensure that you burn a maximum of calories.
Overcome fat phobia.
Physiological fact: You need to eat fat to burn fat. Make a conscious effort to include healthy fats (6 olives, a quarter of an avocado, 12 nuts, or a tablespoon of flaxseed oil) in three of your six meals. Studies suggest that omega-3s (the healthy fats found in salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed oil, among other foods) decrease abdominal fat.
Eat dairy three times a day, unless you're allergic.
It's high in protein, decreases cravings, and will make you feel satisfied. Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt contain essential nutrients (including calcium and potassium), which may help you better manage your weight. If you think you're lactose intolerant, you can still eat Greek yogurt and cottage cheese without any trouble, as the whey has been strained away, removing all but a trace of the milk sugars (lactose).
Get your veggies in early.
We tend to get busier as the day progresses. By dinner most frazzled moms crave comfort foods, not steamed broccoli. Set the tone for the day with a spinach and mushroom omelet for breakfast, or have baby carrots dipped in hummus as a midmorning snack. Two benefits: You meet your vegetable requirement, and getting the day off to a good start means you'll be more likely to defend your success come nightfall.
Don't cut out your favorite foods. Find substitutes.
Love pizza? Order one with whole wheat crust. Ask for extra veggies and half the cheese. Don't worry, the pizza guys have received stranger requests! If you want spaghetti, opt for high-protein pasta such as Barilla Plus. Use reduced-fat dairy. Don't deprive yourself, as you'll be likely to rebel in spades. But if a substitute just won't do, have a small portion of the real thing after filling up on a healthy snack of veggies and lean protein, which will make you feel satisfied and prevent further cravings for junk.
When you crave something you really should avoid, put off the impulse to indulge. Check the clock, drink a glass of water, and wait 15 minutes. You might find that the urge passes. It could be that you were just thirsty -- people often mistake thirst for hunger.
Don't crash diet.
To lose a pound a week, you'll need to limit yourself to 2,000 to 2,200 calories a day if you're breastfeeding -- 1,600 to 1,800 if you're not. You can add extra calories if exercising. But if you attempt to crash diet and eat significantly less than that, you'll quickly regain any weight you lost. Create a two- to three-day menu plan to serve as an initial guide to get a feel of what those calories feel like spread over the course of a day.
Eat foods with a high water content.
Foods high in water (fruits, veggies, soups, teas) fill you up with fewer calories. Water adds weight and volume without adding calories: It lowers the calorie density of foods. Research conducted by Barbara Rolls, PhD, nutrition researcher at Pennsylvania State University and one of the world's leading experts on appetite and appetite control, shows that people who have soup before a meal eat significantly less than those who have a calorically equivalent "energy dense" food. Also, warm foods are more filling than cold, so drink a hot cup of tea between meals.
Make it fun.
If you're up at 3 a.m. pumping or you have some time on your commute to work (if you're not grabbing some shut-eye!), devise a list of six to eight fallback mini meals. Refer to it when you're too frazzled to think of a good choice.
Wash, chop, and steam several days' worth of vegetables for snacks and salads; divide portions of cereal and nuts into sandwich bags. It's not enough to have the salad fixings in the fridge. They should be ready to go so you don't make a bad choice in a moment of weakness. When friends offer help, this is a perfect task to hand over, or they can play with the baby while you do it. As a side note, if pals want to make you a meal, tell them you'd love fruit, soup, or salad instead of the traditional casserole.
Share food and recipes.
Send out an e-mail to friends and ask if they want to join you on this journey. Take turns trading recipes and hosting healthy lunches. And gather occasionally for a potluck picnic in the park (everyone brings one healthy item). A support system all but guarantees success.
Five Quick Tips
- Stock up on healthy snacks. It's impossible to make a good choice if it's not on hand.
- Stay hydrated.
- Eat slowly.
- Plan ahead.
- Aim for consistency, not perfection.
Quick Snacks and Mini Meals
- Soy chips and hummus
- Greek yogurt and honey, walnuts, and half a cup of granola
- String cheese and an apple or pear
- Lentil soup
- Sliced turkey and avocado in a whole wheat wrap
- One package plain instant oatmeal and one scoop of vanilla protein powder (you can carry this to work easily in an empty baby-food jar)
- Egg-white omelet stuffed with avocado
- Homemade trail mix made with unsalted dry-roasted nuts or soy nuts, dried cranberries, and sunflower seeds
- Low-fat yogurt mixed with a high-fiber cereal such as Fiber One
- One cup one percent cottage cheese mixed with a banana and one tablespoon almond butter (tastes like cookie dough -- you must try it to believe it)
- Weight Watchers bagel (high protein) topped with cottage cheese and tomato sauce and broiled
- Smoothie made from any combination of the following ingredients: skim milk, soy milk, almond milk, nonfat yogurt, vanilla or chocolate protein powder, banana, berries, almond or peanut butter, wheat germ, flaxseed oil, ice
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.
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