I can't say nobody warned me: Every pregnancy book on the planet predicted that I'd still be wearing maternity clothes when I took my son home from the hospital. Secretly, I thought I'd at least be able to button my stretched-out jeans. As it turned out, I didn't even try, and that was no biggie: I was too smitten with my baby to care. But a month later—when I was still sporting a sizable inner tube around my middle—I started feeling bad about my bod. Returning to "normal" size may take six-plus months, say experts; with plenty of patience and lots of salads, it took me a bit less. No matter how much you have to lose, you'll do it faster with this research-backed plan.
Modestly cutting calories to lose a pound a week is a safe way to budge postpartum pudge, even if you're breastfeeding. Scaling back sensibly won't mess with the amount of milk you make or have an impact on its nutritional value, says Cheryl Lovelady, Ph.D., R.D., professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, who studies weight loss in postpartum women. Most women will drop a pound a week on 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day—add 300 to 500 calories if you're nursing. Calculate a customized calorie goal at MyPyramid.gov. (Your result will tell you the calories you need to maintain; to lose about a pound a week, subtract 500.) Not yet available: an app to help you quit buying chocolate.
Loads of research shows that a food diary can be a powerful tool. One study in the journal Obesity suggests that you're far more likely to monitor what you eat if you use a digital device to keep track. "An app made all the difference in my getting back into a size 6 after having children," says Linsey Knerl, a mother of five, of Tekamah, Nebraska. "Entering my meals and snacks took all of 30 seconds and kept me aware of what I was eating."
Grazing on more veggies, fruits, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and legumes can help you get the crucial nutrients (calcium, iron, fiber, and protein) you need as a new mom and ensure you won't feel deprived. "When selecting snacks, think 'two food groups' rather than 'treat,'" says Melinda Johnson, R.D., a Phoenix spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Snacks with protein tend to have more staying power, research suggests, so make sure there's some in whatever you're noshing on. A few palate-pleasing ideas: an apple with a slice of low-fat cheese, hummus on whole-grain crackers, yogurt and blueberries, or a bowl of whole-grain, low-sugar cereal with skim milk.
Nursing moms may have to make a special effort to pick nutritious noshes, suggests a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which found that women who exclusively breastfed their babies ate more grains and desserts (think white rice, cookies, and other starchy foods) than moms who fed their children formula or a combo of formula and breast milk. The study's authors suspect that breastfeeding moms may believe that nursing will counteract the calories they're consuming, but it's not exactly true. Sorry!
Sitting down to long, leisurely home-cooked meals: not gonna happen. You need no-brainer, no-fuss healthy foods, so stock up on cups of low-fat yogurt, string cheeses, individual pots of hummus or pouches of peanut butter, fruit-and-nut bars, low-cal frozen entrées, and pre-washed and cut vegetables.
Downing a lot of trans fats (usually found in high-calorie baked goods and fast foods) is linked to lingering baby weight, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. "Trans fats could result in inflammation, which may be one of the causes of weight gain," says Emily Oken, M.D., associate professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School and the study's lead author. For Kristyn Lewis, a mom in Durham, North Carolina, swearing off processed foods, refined grains, sweets, and alcohol enabled her to drop the 8 pounds that remained after her second daughter was born. "I was shocked to discover that my cravings disappeared after a few days," Lewis says. "I generally don't believe in depriving myself, but I was sick of elastic-waist pants."
Watching more than two hours of TV daily is associated with retaining significantly more baby fat after giving birth, research shows. "People tend to eat mindlessly when sitting in front of the television," Dr. Oken says. Record your favorite shows and watch them while you're doing something else, like folding a load of laundry or, better yet, walking on a treadmill.
Sleep more, with a baby? Yes, it's possible—and good for your waistline. Moms who got five or fewer hours of sleep a day when their babies were 6 months old were three times more likely to be at least 11 pounds over their pre-pregnancy weight a year after delivery than were those who slept seven hours a day, according to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology. "If you're tired, you don't have the energy to exercise," Dr. Oken notes. "And sometimes you eat to try to activate yourself." Mindless munching won't give you pep, and your body doesn't need the extra calories. Studies also show that skimping on sleep can throw appetite-regulating hormones out of whack. Joanna Grossman, a mom in Burlington, Vermont, felt better after she moved her daughter into her own room. "We didn't wake up at every little sleep snort," Grossman says. Go to bed right after Baby does, Dr. Oken suggests. Wash your face and brush your teeth after dinner, so you can hop in the sack following that last evening feeding.
If you thought for a second that we were talking about your breasts, you really need some time away from your Boppy. Studies show that pairing up with a pal is an effective way to say goodbye to pounds. Take it from Amy Pisano, a mom of two, of New Castle, Pennsylvania, who signed up for a Zumba class with a buddy when they were both trying to shed their pregnancy weight. "Going with a friend made me feel more comfortable, which motivated me," Pisano explains. "I lost 10 pounds over the four-month session and had so much fun that when it ended, I signed up for boot camp class!"
Amber Brooks of Puyallup, Washington, lost 54 pounds in 10 months.
"I love being that mom who can chase my son around the yard. I want to stay that way as he grows."
I indulged my cravings during pregnancy, but afterward, I returned to my eat-clean regimen of whole foods.
Fave breakfast: Oatmeal with a banana and dried cranberries
Fave lunch: I make my salads with spinach, avocado chunks, corn, quinoa, blue cheese crumbles, tomatoes, and a splash of vinaigrette.
Fave dinner: Baked salmon with a cup of steamed broccoli
Worth-it splurge: Frozen yogurt topped with yogurt chips and cool whip
I like to use the Stair Master at my gym.
The extra weight is temporary. It's going to take some effort, but you can take it off.
Amanda Bruno of Manorville, New York, lost 35 pounds in 4 months.
"When I'm comfortable with my weight, I'm a happier person and a better mom."
I got dressed in my real clothes even when they were tight, to remind me to eat healthily. I wanted to lose that belly roll!
Fave breakfast: Smoothie with coconut milk, strawberries, bananas, and yogurt
Fave lunch: Baked or grilled chicken with vegetables
Fave dinner: Homemade veggie pizza; I buy the dough and make my own tomato sauce. Then I sprinkle mozzarella and spinach and zucchini (from my husband's farm!) on it before baking.
Worth-it splurge: My husband and I are dessert people. I buy pre-made cookie dough and bake just four cookies at a time for us.
I'm not a gym rat, but at home I am nonstop. I don't mind going up and down the stairs with the laundry, because it pays off.
Breastfeeding really helped me lose weight. When friends say, "Oh, nursing is so hard," I tell them, "Well, pregnancy is hard, and you did that."
Sleep deprivation can make your resolve to eat well and exercise dissolve. Stay the course when you're ready to crash with these very realistic suggestions.
Put something fun on the calendar. Plan a rejuvenating lunch with the girls. Or book a date with your husband. The less stressed you are, the easier it will be to remain focused on your weight-loss goals.
Imagine how you'd look in your favorite outfits. "Fitting back into my fabulous pre-baby clothes was one of the major motivators for me to lose the weight," says Holly Tedesco, a mom of two, of Forest Hills, New York.
Jot down the rewards you'll reap. For Melissa Fleming, of Canoga Park, California, remembering how terrific she felt after exercising inspired her to work out after the births of each of her three kids. "My skin felt better, I slept better at night, and even my hair felt better!" she says. These side benefits are easy to forget when you're running on empty, so tack up a list of them.
Now that you've settled into a more predictable pattern of chaos, you might be thinking about exercising. Where to begin? With this fab cheat sheet from Tom Holland, M.S., exercise physiologist and author of Beat the Gym: Personal Trainer Secrets—Without the Personal Trainer Price Tag.
Don't overdo it. "Use your first workouts to gauge your fitness," Holland suggests. You might try jogging for three minutes and then walking for one or two. Repeat the cycle for a total of 20 or 30 minutes.
Do pop in a DVD. "DVDs give you access to some of the best experts in the business," Holland says. You don't necessarily have to exercise along with them; watch for ideas and techniques you can borrow.
Don't fall for fuzzy math. When people in a study at the University of Ottawa were told to eat to replace the calories burned in a workout, they helped themselves to two to three times more calories than they'd scorched. (Gulp.) Set calorie goals, do your workouts, and then, if you're hungry, add healthy snacks.
Do try circuit training. Cranking out a series of exercises with a little rest in between keeps your heart rate elevated, allowing you to combine cardio and strength training in one time-efficient session, Holland says. Try to fit this in several days a week, doing 20 minutes of circuits that rotate through cardio, abs, and a strength move.
Don't get in a rut. Speed-walk with a friend one day; use your dumbbells while baby naps the next.
Do sneak in a shorty. Brief bursts of intense exercise with breaks in between may get you fitter faster than working out at a steady, moderate pace for longer, a study in The Journal of Physiology finds. Got 10 minutes free? Seize 'em!
Don't make yourself crazy. "Listen to your body and don't be so hard on yourself," Holland says. "You will get back in shape!"
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of American Baby magazine. Updated July 2014.
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