Once you have a baby, preparing a proper breakfast, lunch, or dinner (let alone sitting down to eat it) suddenly becomes a luxury you can't afford. But your new hectic lifestyle -- in which you grab food between sessions of feeding, burping, and playing with your infant -- has an unexpected benefit: It may help you drop a few of those postbaby pounds. Turns out, consuming three big meals a day isn't the healthiest eating plan, after all. "Eating smaller meals and snacks throughout the day is optimal for keeping your metabolism working at its best and your moods up -- especially when your body is trying to regulate its hormones after pregnancy," says Melinda Johnson, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Here's the smart way to do it:
Control your portions Even though you'll be eating more often, that doesn't mean you can simply eat more (sigh). Think of it this way: If you cut each of your three main meals roughly in half, you get to eat six or seven smaller meals per day. You can even go for eight of these mini-meals/snacks per day, as long as you shrink them accordingly. Have trouble managing your portion sizes? Stock up on snacks that come commercially packaged in 100-calorie servings. Or try divvying everything up into single portions at the beginning of the week: Count almonds into one-ounce (22 nuts) piles and stash them in plastic bags (might this be a wonderful job for your well-meaning mother-in-law?); divide leftover turkey chili into one- or one-and-a-half-cup containers; and ask the deli guy to pack your pound of roasted turkey slices into four separate 4-ounce packages. "Eyeballing things often doesn't work when you eat frequently," says Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "If you measure things out, it becomes much easier to say, 'I'll have just this portion' -- and you still have the satisfaction of eating to the bottom of the bag."
Ultimately, to lose weight, aim for 1,500 to 2,000 calories per day, depending on your needs. If you're breastfeeding (which expends approximately 500 calories a day) or you're training for a 10K (as if), stick to the higher end of that range. Expect to lose about a pound a week if you're also keeping moderately active.
Nicci Micco is a freelance health and nutrition writer in Burlington, Vermont. She is also the cofounder of WhatRealWomenEat.com.
Snack on a variety of healthy foods to help stabilize your moods. Just as hunger makes you feel grumpy, not eating the right stuff can also affect your mental state. Fad diets that eliminate entire food groups can wreak havoc on your emotions and may even make a case of the baby blues feel worse, says Becky Hand, R.D., a dietitian for SparkPeople.com, a fitness and weight-loss website. In particular, she says, "it's crucial to stay away from very low carbohydrate diets after pregnancy because the brain needs carbohydrates to function properly." And when you're operating on less than four hours of sleep, your brain needs all the help it can get. Just make sure you focus on healthy, fiber-rich carbohydrates: oatmeal, brown rice, popcorn, whole-wheat pasta and breads, sweet potatoes, and apples. If you're eating lots of refined starches and sweets or candies and sodas -- which are digested rapidly -- you won't feel satisfied for very long after eating (or make much headway on meeting your nutrient needs, for that matter), even though you've consumed a lot of calories. Besides, studies show that women who eat more fiber are leaner.
To keep your appetite in check and your energy levels and emotions steady, try to balance most meals and snacks with a combination of healthy carbs and lean proteins (low-fat dairy, lean meats, nuts). Some foods, such as yogurt and beans, offer a built-in balance of carbs and protein. Other good combinations:
- oatmeal with peaches and walnuts
- low-fat yogurt with low-fat granola
- carrots and/or whole-wheat pita with hummus
- apple slices with peanut butter
- half a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato
- baked tortilla chips with bean dip
- small salad with grilled chicken breast
- veggie chili with low-fat cheese
Honor your hunger Space out eating for appetite control -- and maximum energy. You're so busy trying to take care of everything around you -- your fussy baby, the laundry on the floor, the pile of paperwork you really need to complete -- that you ignore the hunger signals that have been surging around inside for hours. "New moms often don't pay enough attention to themselves," says Johnson. "They plow through the chaos. It's important to check in every few hours to ask yourself if you're hungry." (Don't eat if you're not hungry, says Johnson, but do remind yourself to chug a glass of water, especially if you're breastfeeding.) Other moms ignore their growling stomachs because they feel like they have to wait until a certain time before it's "okay" to eat. But paying no mind to your hunger until you're ravenous never has a happy ending. "You get so hungry that you'll basically eat whatever's in sight -- and too much of it," says Ruth Frechman, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Eat "super" foods
When you were pregnant, your diet was so healthy that you sometimes felt like a poster child for optimal eating. You noshed nutritiously because you were committed to providing the best for your growing baby. Keep up the good work: Your health depends upon it now, particularly if you're breastfeeding. Certain vitamins and minerals, including folic acid and calcium -- two nutrients that many women fall short on -- are maintained at ideal levels in your breast milk at the expense of your reserves. "If you're not getting enough calcium through your diet, your body pulls it from your bones, putting you at risk for osteoporosis," says Frechman. Folic acid is important for heart health and for preventing birth defects in future pregnancies. You also need to replenish the iron stores that were depleted during your last trimester (when you were building up your baby's stores) and through blood loss during the delivery, especially if you had a cesarean section. Protein needs increase slightly, too, when you're breastfeeding. Include these "super" foods in your diet to cover your nutritional bases:
- fortified cereals (such as Total)
- low-fat yogurt
- lean red meat
Indulge in chocolate Or chips. Or ice cream. The point is, don't outlaw your favorite foods; factor them in. Plan a daily treat (100 to 150 calories) of whatever you crave: Hershey's kisses, an ice cream sandwich, or BBQ chips. "It's much better to have 150 calories' worth of real cookies than to have a big serving of low-fat, artificially sweetened ones -- and still feel like you deprived yourself of what you really want," says Fernstrom.