There are many times during the year that many of us think about losing weight or getting in shape: New Year's, before summer beach season, or when a big social event is coming up.
But what if you're pregnant?
Pregnancy is different. We still want to look our best, but that baby growing inside us needs to get all of the nutrients needed to grow well. Yet, there is pressure on pregnant women to diet. Obstetricians recommend only gaining a limited amount of weight during pregnancy, and some doctors and midwives will put pressure on women to stop gaining weight at a certain point if they have gained "too much" weight too quickly. Additionally, some women may worry about gaining too much weight during pregnancy. Will it increase my risk? Will I look fat instead of pregnant? What if I can't get the weight off again after I have my baby?
Yes, there are risks to gaining too much weight during pregnancy. However, there are also considerable risks to trying to lose weight during pregnancy, or not gaining enough. Some of those risks include a higher chance of baby being born prematurely, being too small (small for gestational age or low birthweight), having heart or lung problems,1 and even an increased risk that baby could die within the first year.2 ACOG (The American Council of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) recommends that ALL women gain weight during pregnancy. Even obese women should gain at least 11 pounds during pregnancy.3 To make this perfectly clear: a woman should never try to lose weight while pregnant.
Safe ways to look and feel better during pregnancy without dieting
Fortunately, there are things you can do to look and feel better, while also helping your baby be healthier. The ideas below may affect your appearance by improving muscle tone or by reducing the amount of weight gained during pregnancy. Using the ideas should help ensure that you gain the right amount of weight for you and your baby, without needing to count calories or watch the scale like a hawk. In addition, starting these healthy weight-influencing habits during pregnancy will help you feel better, help your baby to be healthier, and may help you reach a more ideal body composition more quickly after your baby is born.
Please understand that these are general suggestions for healthy, low-risk pregnant women. Please discuss any changes to your nutrition, exercise or other lifestyle habits with your doctor or midwife before making any changes.
- Do aerobic exercise. Regular aerobic exercise, 30 minutes or more a day, helps condition your heart, train your body to burn sugar efficiently, use calories, and move toxins out of the body. Try walking, stationary bicycle, swimming, or another activity you enjoy.
- Do strength training or toning exercises. Doing strength training and toning exercises, even for a few minutes most days of the week, will help your body to burn more calories overall in addition to toning your muscles. Try prenatal yoga or Pilates.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. Yes, I know. Who wants to eat more fruits and vegetables? They can be an acquired taste, and it is harder for some of us to acquire that taste than others. The benefits are well worth it, though. Not only are fruits and vegetables power-packed with nutrition for their calorie content, but their fiber helps you feel full for longer.
- Swap some foods for healthier alternatives. Substituting healthier foods for some snacks and meals can make a big difference. These can be small changes, like eating low-fat or baked potato chips instead of conventional potato chips, or they can be big changes, like eating an apple, a handful of blueberries, or some carrots instead of potato chips. Start with just swapping one snack or food item a day for a healthier option.
- Eat low glycemic. This basically means eating in a way to keep your blood sugar more stable. When we eat certain foods that digest quickly, it raises blood sugar quickly, but falls just as quickly. This can result in feeling tired or disoriented, getting moody, or feeling hungry even when our bellies feel stuffed. Low glycemic foods raise blood sugar more slowly, and will tend to keep blood sugar more stable longer, as well. So what makes a food low glycemic? Essentially, the more protein, fiber and fat that a food has compared to carbohydrates, the lower it is on the glycemic index and the slower it will digest. Some examples of low glycemic carbohydrates include berries, whole grain breads, sweet potatoes and brown basmati rice. We will explore low glycemic eating in more depth in a future post.
- Watch what you drink. Many beverages contain a lot of calories, and our bodies do not really register those calories as filling us up. That means that it is possible for us to drink an extra meal or more's worth of calories every day and not even realize it. Switching some or all of our beverages to water or healthy low- or no-calorie drinks can save a lot of unhealthy weight gain over time. Just try to avoid artificial sweeteners.
- Learn to listen to your body. Our bodies know what we need, and how much we need, to be healthy. The voice of our bodies is usually quiet, though, and many of us are not used to paying attention to it. If we create opportunities, we can learn how to understand our body's signals. Start by taking smaller portions of food, chewing well, and eating slowly. Before going back for seconds, sit and chat, read, or just relax for 10 minutes or so to let the signals for continued hunger or being satisfied become clearer. Often, we just do not give our body the time or focus to let us know what it needs. If you are not sure whether or not you are still hungry, wait. You can always snack later. It is ok to leave food on your plate. If you don't want to throw it away, pack it up in a container and eat it later for a snack.On the other hand, if you do feel hungry, eat! As you would expect, eating when you are hungry help ensure that baby is getting what he or she needs. Also, depriving ourselves of food when we are hungry makes us more likely to overeat when we do finally get food. It can also wreak havoc with the way our bodies decide whether to burn sugar or store fat.
Pick one of the tips above to start with, and find a friend or two who is willing to make the shift with you. It helps to have other people to commiserate with : I mean support each other : while making lifestyle changes. Change does not happen right away. They say that it takes at least 21 days to create a new habit, so be patient with yourself. Also take it slowly. Choosing one or two changes at a time is easier for most of us to stick with than trying to revamp our entire lives. Add another habit each week if you want to make a number of changes.
While it is not safe to diet or try to lose weight during pregnancy, there are still ways to help keep your weight gain healthy. Focus on these healthy ways, taking any changes slowly, and trust your body! Our bodies are a lot smarter than we give them credit for being. We are able to see more of that innate intelligence as we learn better how to listen, and how to support those needs. During pregnancy, this helps women put on the right amount of weight for themselves and their babies. Postpartum, this helps us to eventually each reach our body's ideal weight.
Melinda Delisle, LCCE, is a mom of two, a natural health researcher and advocate, and a Lamaze-certified childbirth educator. Melinda started teaching childbirth classes in 2000. She found that her students had much more comfortable and healthier pregnancies and births with fewer complications when they decided to follow healthy lifestyle principles. This led Melinda to develop the Pocket Pregnancy Guide ebook series, including "What to Eat When Pregnant" (learn more at www.pocketpregnancyplanner.com ). Melinda believes in the ability of women to make our own choices, and the strength of our bodies when we learn how to support them.
- Siega-Riz AM, Viswanathan M, Moos MK, Deierlein A, Mumford S, Knaack J, et al. A systematic review of outcomes of maternal weight gain according to the Institute of Medicine recommendations: birthweight, fetal growth, and postpartum weight retention. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2009;201:339.e1:14.
- Regina R. Davis, Sandra L. Hofferth, Edmond D. Shenassa. Gestational Weight Gain and Risk of Infant Death in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 2013; : e1 DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2013.301425
- Weight gain during pregnancy. Committee Opinion No. 548. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Obstet Gynecol 2013;121:210:2.