If life were fair, staying up all night with a crying baby for three nights in a row would burn as many calories as running a 10K race. And breastfeeding would mean you could eat all the pizza and potato chips you wanted. But for most people, the postbaby pounds don't just melt off. The very time when your body most needs your attention is when you have the least amount of time and energy to attend to it.
So what's a new mom to do? We hooked up three lucky ladies with nutritionist Joy Bauer, author of The 90/10 Weight-Loss Plan (St. Martin's Griffin), who offered personalized meal planning, and Jamie Norcini, group fitness director of Clay, a private gym in New York City, who gave the women training sessions, to help them lose those extra pounds. What they learned can help you, too.
Food & Nutrition: Bauer's nutrition plan is based on the theory that balancing meals with lean proteins and quality carbs (whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and unsaturated fat) reduces cravings and bingeing. For dinner, she recommends limiting simple carbs like bread, rice, or pasta to one serving, or skipping them altogether. "This move forces you to load up on veggies, which everyone needs."
The other component to her plan is that "you can't omit everything decadent that you love, or you'll walk around like a time bomb waiting to eat 55 chocolate chip cookies."
Exercise: As far as fitness goes, for clients whose goal is weight loss, Norcini mixes high-energy cardio spurts (using a treadmill, bike, or stair-climber) with resistance work (weights, machines, or bands). "It's the most effective way to lose weight because your heart rate stays up the whole time," he says.
Before the training began, we asked each participant to write down everything she ate for three days. Then, over the course of 12 weeks, each woman met with Bauer every other week (six times altogether). On alternate weeks they had a training session (six times altogether). Finally, we asked the participants to record how they fared on their own, so we could see which advice stayed with them.
Kristin Marusic's Story
5'8", 31, mom to Joseph, 6 months, still nursing. Starting weight: 178 lbs. Prepregnancy: 155 lbs. Ultimate goal: 140 lbs. Ending weight: 158 lbs.
"I love food and have a big appetite. I gained 50 pounds during pregnancy, and I wasn't my slimmest to begin with. I've never been much of a calorie counter, and I have even less time to do it now."
What her food diary revealed: Kristin eats regularly throughout the day, which is fine, but her food choices -- and portion sizes -- needed work.
"We live on pasta. My husband's family is from Italy, so we eat huge Italian meals, or get takeout." The problem of high-calorie, high-carb dinners was further compounded by Kristin's tendency to make a lunch of last night's leftovers. Snacks tended to be sugary -- a muffin or a couple of cookies. Breakfast was fine, but there was just too much of it: a bowl of cereal filled to the brim, a large glass of orange juice, and a banana.
The Food Plan
Kristin is still nursing, so her food plan is based on a 2,000-calorie diet -- enough to keep her milk supply up, while still cutting calories to lose weight. For breakfast, she needs to measure out one serving of dry cereal (preferably one high in fiber) and a half cup of skim milk, cut the banana in half, and skip the big glass of OJ. For lunch, Kristin switched to a ham or turkey sandwich on whole wheat. She could have had one slice of cheese, but she chose to skip it. Dinner options included a piece of chicken or fish with steamed vegetables and a side salad, or a turkey burger on a bun with a slice of cheese.
How it went: Kristin lost 5 pounds the first week, and continued to lose steadily in the remaining weeks. Knowing what a portion looks like really helped. "Going to other people's houses for meals was hard, but I would visualize those compartmental plates with vegetables taking up half, and grains and protein taking up a quarter each of the plate," she says.
Worst moment: The holidays were tough. "We went to my parents' home for two weeks. My aunt made her special shortbread (with chopped Snickers in it) and I had some every day. I didn't lose any weight but didn't gain any, either."
Best moment: After one month, "I was able to box up all of my maternity clothes and retire my size 14 pants."
The Exercise Plan
When Kristin went for her first training session, she thought she was in reasonable shape. "After the 15-minute warm-up, I was done -- and there were still 45 minutes to go! Getting through that workout was the hardest thing I'd done since giving birth," she says.
In order to be able to sustain any kind of activity, Kristin needed to improve her endurance, so she did a lot of cardio initially, mixing in resistance work using bands and her own body weight (as in push-ups) to gain strength. At home, Kristin's limited by a few factors: no gym membership or equipment, and no childcare. Norcini recommended a daily walk, including hills, and buying some exercise bands for upper-body work.
How it went: During the first two months, the exercise portion was not as successful for Kristin as the eating plan. She couldn't always find time to take a walk with Joseph. She never got around to buying resistance bands. The way her schedule worked out, she missed a few training sessions early on -- so in the last month she had four in a row, and that's when she started seeing results.
On Her Own
By the end of 12 weeks, Kristin had lost 10 pounds, but on her own, she was plateauing. To continue losing, she knew she would have to amp up her workouts. Instead of relying on walks, which are subject to schedule and weather issues, she exercises with a TV aerobics show.
"Denise Austin is on every morning at 7:30. I nurse, walk the dog, brush my teeth, and do Denise. I'm down to 158. But I want to be 140 before I get pregnant again. This time I want to be fit and trim, and only gain 30 pounds!"
Michelle Rimland's Story
5'6", 35, mom to Ella, 6 months. Starting weight: 162 lbs. Prepregnancy: 146 lbs. Ultimate goal: 125 lbs. Ending weight: 137 lbs.
"I've just gone back to work after being home with Ella for six months. Other than the initial weight I dropped right after I gave birth, I haven't lost a pound. What with entertaining everyone who's come to see the baby, and just plain emotional eating, I'm finding it difficult to make a dent in the 40 pounds I want to lose," she says.
What her food diary revealed: Michelle's tendency is to be good for three-quarters of the day, but by late afternoon, things start going downhill. "She has a real sweet tooth. She loves cookies, ice cream, and chocolate," says Bauer.
Nighttime is the biggest challenge. She gets home at 6:15, looking forward to hanging out with Ella until her 7 p.m. bedtime. Dinner, which Michelle's husband prepares, isn't ready until 8:30. This hour and a half tends to be a snacking free-for-all, with a handful of cereal here, a spoonful of peanut butter there. "Then I'm not in the mood for dinner," she laments.
The Food Plan
Michelle needs to beef up her breakfast of oatmeal made with water by adding protein and fruit. Her revamped breakfast is one tablespoon of peanut butter divided between two Light Thomas English muffin halves with half a banana. Michelle's salad lunch just needed a little tweaking. Bauer's theory on salad is unlimited vegetables, two tablespoons of light dressing, one to two scoops of lean protein (chicken or tuna), and one "fun high-fat thing like nuts, cheese, or avocado. Michelle was having avocado and feta -- one of them had to go," Bauer says. "She should try to have fruit as a snack, or eat an energy bar for protein."
To combat mindless nighttime snacking, Michelle needs to plan ahead so she's got the ingredients for lean meat, vegetables, and salad. Because Michelle loves sugary desserts like ice cream, Bauer took the starch out of Michelle's dinner in favor of a sweet snack in the 200-calorie range.
How it went: Michelle lost 3 pounds her first two weeks. Tweaking lunch and breakfast was easy, but she's still struggling with setting limits in the evening. "After a stressful day, I can get into this It's been a long day -- I deserve this mind-set. But even on a bad night, I'm still more in control than I was."
Worst moment: "I went to a nutritionist appointment expecting a big weight loss, and only lost a pound. Turns out those takeout turkey burgers I had several times during the two weeks were twice the size of what I should be eating."
Best moment: "On vacation, I went to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory where we were going to have ice cream. I didn't want to leave feeling deprived, or mad at myself because I overdid it. I thought about it, I planned for it, and I only ate a couple of bites."
The Exercise Plan
Michelle has always been active and was in good enough shape to exercise pretty intensely on both the cardio equipment and weights right from the start. At home, Norcini suggested that she replicate their gym workouts at home in her apartment complex.
How it went: Exercise was a big factor in Michelle's success. She followed Norcini's advice for home workouts religiously, going to the gym after dinner, around 9:00. On weekends she'd work out during Ella's nap, for a total of four to five times a week.
On Her Own
After 12 weeks, Michelle had lost 10 pounds. But after a month going solo, she had lost only 2 more pounds. She had slacked off a little on working out. To get the structure she felt she needed, Michelle joined Weight Watchers. By press time, she'd lost another 15 pounds.
Jeanette Mercedes's Story
5'6.5", 35, mom to Jack, 11 months. Starting weight: 149 lbs. Prepregnancy: 138 lbs. Ultimate goal: 130 lbs. Ending weight: 127 lbs.
"I gained 30 pounds during my pregnancy, and have lost all but the last 10 pounds. I have a very hectic schedule -- I work full time as a lawyer, plus I teach a class twice a week. When I get home, I feed Jack dinner while my husband cooks for us. By the time I get Jack into bed at 9:30, I'm exhausted. Before I had Jack, I used to go work out at a gym, but I have no time now that I have a child. I manage to stay active though, because I'm always on the go."
What her food diary revealed: Jeanette was accustomed to eating three large meals a day. A typical breakfast consisted of a muffin or two bowls of cereal and coffee with three teaspoons of sugar. Lunch was a mixed bag -- she ate out at restaurants, had ham and cheese on a roll at her desk, or ate leftovers from the night before. For dinner, she loved red meat, pork, pasta with meat sauce, and rice.
The Food Plan
Breakfast was scaled down to a bowl of oatmeal and a piece of fruit. Jeanette said the one thing she could not give up was her morning coffee with lots of sugar -- so that became her day's sugary treat. Lunch options consisted of salad with protein, a turkey burger with half the bun, or a ham sandwich on whole wheat (instead of a roll) with one slice of low-fat cheese.
For dinner, Bauer said to cut the rice and pasta to half a cup, preferably using whole wheat pasta or brown rice; and to eat more vegetables. She also suggested substituting ground turkey for hamburger and pork tenderloin for pork chops, and choosing leaner cuts of red meat.
How it went: At first, Jeanette was hungry on the smaller breakfast but she adjusted after a week or so. For dinner, she shops at a local butcher and asks for lean cuts of beef and pork, and she's eating more chicken. Jeanette has never been a big vegetable eater, but she does like broccoli, so she's been eating a lot of that. Initially, she ate brown rice and whole wheat pasta, but gradually cut them out altogether. "Though I cheat occasionally, I make sure I don't do it two days in a row," she says.
Worst moment: "I ate two slices of pizza instead of one. I really regretted it afterward -- it just stayed in my stomach and I felt gross. My body had adjusted to eating less."
Best moment: "I'd been wearing casual clothes to work -- which involved lots of ironing -- because I couldn't fit into my suits. Now I'm back into my old wardrobe, which means I can send things out for dry cleaning instead of ironing!"
The Exercise Plan
Jeanette has great legs. She wanted to tone her upper body so it matched her lower body, so Norcini had her do less cardio and more weight training. "She wanted to do some major toning, so we did more weight, fewer reps," Norcini says.
How it went: "I bought exercise bands and thought I would get up at five in the morning to work out. I did that twice. To make exercise happen, I had to work Jack into the routine. When the weather got nicer, I started going on evening walks with him. After I'd built up a sweat, I'd take Jack out of the stroller and hold him as I pushed it to work my upper body. Sometimes I also ran up and down the stairs in my apartment building, taking two at a time. On vacation, I didn't follow the food plan at all. I ate like a truck driver, but I walked every day, pushing the stroller on the beach."
On Her Own
After dropping nearly 14 pounds with the program, Jeanette set her sights on losing 10 pounds more. So she continued to watch portion sizes and write down everything she ate, and kept up her hour-long walks with Jack every night. Today Jeanette is proud to weigh in at 127 pounds, fully three pounds less than what she weighed 10 years ago.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2005.