A few months ago, I had the honour to present at FILEX 2017 in Sydney which is the biggest fitness and health conference in Australia. The presentation was titled, The Motherhood Fat Trap. I also had the pleasure to present it with a real life mum and fitness professional, Kylianne Farrell of The Movement Room who brought her knowledge and experience to the discussion.
I wanted to follow up that presentation with this blog as I know that it is an area where a lot of women struggle. It is kind of no wonder, with images and tag lines like this one...
Getting your "pre-baby body" back is something that brings huge emotional distress to women. More times than I would like to witness it robs precious moments of joy, happiness & connection with their partners as they celebrate the gift of a new life but battle internally with living inside a body that has changed.
Words like "hate", "disgusting", "fat", "wobbly", "gross", "dimply" are often used to describe what they now see.
Here is my heartbreak with this
1. An under appreciation of the metabolic changes that occur post birth which are not in your control
Harvesting a child and feeding it is a very energy demanding process. There are metabolic changes that occur to accomodate metabolising "for two" during pregnancy and in anticipation for the demands of breastfeeding.
These changes include: increase in insulin resistance, increased visceral fat, increased insulin, increased circulating lipids.
Now let me make sure you get this, these things happen to ensure you have enough energy to grow and feed your baby. It's a good thing.
It is hypothesised that breastfeeding may play a role in mobilising these accumulated fat stores and kind of "resetting' maternal metabolism. That isn't to say that if you don't breastfeed you will keep these fat stores forever. However, some studies show that the longer a women breastfeeds the more completely accumulated fat is offloaded.
This is an area of grave debate and there are numerous individual cases where women who breastfeed lose body fat easily and women who don't breastfeed lose body fat easily. The point is that the demands of having a child and feeding it are high, from an energy perspective. We have innate mechanisms that ensure a mother will have enough energy stored to feed her child (these mechanisms were in built to make sure our species survived, well before the option to feed children formula existed).
Fun Fact: Studies of lipolysis (the breakdown of lipids) and LPL activity (an enzyme involved in fat breakdown) in fat biopsies also show regional deposition of femoral fat (thighs) during pregnancy and mobilisation of these stores during lactation. Whilst I cannot promise a thigh gap post pregnancy if you breastfeed (nor should this ever be on your #goals of things to achieve), it may be that accumulation of fat in this particular area, happens for an intelligent reason. The authors in this study, noted that long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are concentrated in lower body fat, and they speculate that fat from this region is preferentially mobilised in lactation to support infant brain development. Fat around the thighs = healthy fat for babies growing brain!!!! Again, it's a good thing!
You know how things look a little "well less defined" than before you had a baby? Let me introduce you to the hormone, relaxin. You can thank this guy for making your musculosketal system (bones, ligaments, muscles, joints, connective tissues including skin), a little more "relaxed" to accomodate housing a child and getting it out of you. Relaxin, levels peak during the transition of the first and second trimester and then again at birth and remain in a womens body until breastfeeding stops, but at lower levels. So try to relax about your softness, the shape will come back with time.
2. Accidental or intentional undereating and or undernourishing
Yes, you read that correctly. I said, undereating ie. not eating enough overall calories to support the basic requirements for your body to function. Undernoursihing refers to a lack of adequate nutrients (like protein, fat, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins). Both over the longer term signals to the brain famine/starvation and to kick into survival mode.
I once had a new Mum reach me out and tell me that she didn't eat anything but coffee (which need I remind you, isn't food), for two days straight due to the new demands placed upon her of being a Mum. She ended up in hospital on a drip!
This may be more on the extreme end, however the majority of Mum's that I speak to are under eating and or undernourishing their bodies. Sometimes it is purely accidentally due to the demands placed on them and lack of support and awareness. But sometimes it is a diet or restrictive mindset due to desperately wanting to lose body fat.
All species including humans have a primary goal in life - to survive and reproduce to avoid extinction. Lack of nutrients and calories over a prolonged period can trigger your stress response, leading to increased stress hormones, like cortisol, and a slowing down of metabolic rate through effects on thyroid hormone production.
*** Note that the calorie requirements in breastfeeding go up by an additional 500 calories per day, so that's about one extra meal.
The consequences of being in survival mode span well beyond fat loss resistance.
Thyroid hormone not only effects weight regulation it also controls memory, concentration, mood, body temperature, intestinal motility, hair and nail growth, energy levels and more.
Elevated cortisol can lead to redistribution of fat to the midsection, immune suppression, reduced healing, fluctuation in blood sugar levels and cravings, sleep disturbance, gastrointestinal upset, low libido and more.
The worst thing a women can do in this scenario is eat less or exercise more to kick start fat loss. The opposite would be true and this can be really hard for women to get their heads around. Your body needs to know it is safe, well fed, and nourished in order to function and let go of excess body fat.
3. Not recovering properly
One of the biggest take home messages from our presentation was this concept that the "fourth trimester" should really be treated like an athlete and the post birth phase as a recovery process from a major event (with or without any injury sustained).
This means that in order to even consider performing at life there must be a recovery plan in place whereby you are building the body back up. That means eating enough food to support overall calorie needs for you and if you are breastfeeding for your growing human, replacing nutrients that have been used up more readily during pregnancy, supporting tissues to heal, sleeping when you can, and having a team of people around you to support and allow you to recover - physically, emotionally and nutritionally.
Throwing yourself back into the game and expecting to perform at peak level, despite your recent major physical and emotional event would be considered crazy in any sport. Yet as a mum it's kind of expected.
Having a recovery strategy in place sets the foundations for achieving fat loss down the track.
4. Sleep is a critical missing piece of this puzzle
Of all the post pregnancy stories I hear, the lack of sleep and quality sleep is probably the thing that scares me the most.
And when it comes to fat loss it can be a big missing piece of the puzzle. A single night of sleep is associated with an increase in insulin resistance, increased inflammation, changes in hunger hormones, emotional instability, increased calorie intake (and usually not of the meat and veg kind but rather the highly, palatable, energy dense kind).
I am well aware that most Mum's cannot do a lot to improve this, being aware of the effects it has on you however can be empowering to make better decisions when you inevitably will be affected by the effects of lack of sleep.
Having ready to go healthier snack options, pre-made meals, removing all tempting foods out of your house and getting a nap in whenever and wherever you can is super important.
And going easy on yourself, not trying to always push through it and give in to the tempting allures of 3 cups of coffee per day - because hey, a woman needs her sleep!
5. Thinking too big or too small when it comes to exercise
Too big = Feeling like you have to go and do a HIIT session three time a week
Too small = no time for anything anymore.
Aim for something in between, minus the HIIT for now, don't do that yet. Remember we want recovery first which will ultimately set the foundations for fat loss moving forward. Go for a walk, not on the treadmill but outside, with or without baby. Find a group of women and a trainer who specialises in post natal training. Think of it as an investment into being an amazing Mum.
And better yet, start moving before you plan to become pregnant and during. The same is true for nutrition.
6. Being unrealistic with your expectations
The reality is, your body after birth is different to your body prior to birth - need I remind you that you housed and gave birth to a little human, of course it is different now.
The truth is, you are different too and your life is now different. And that is ok.
You have been through a life changing experience. You cannot and shouldn't expect or compare yourself to the life nor body you had before.
Nor should you compare your body to someone else's post baby body.
Focus on what you have right now; on what your body is capable of; that you are here to experience this amazing time in your life; and that it is the small steps you do everyday that make the biggest impacts on your health outcomes.
It's not a time to do it all on your own. "It takes a village to raise a child". Ask for help, connect with people, speak about your struggles, and find time to nurture yourself. The only way forward is to go through it, one day at a time.
I hope this gives some insight into the complexity of fat loss post birth and gives you some areas to focus on that you may have overlooked. I wrote an ebook, Healing Post Birth - A Nutritional Perspective that goes into a little more detail about how to optimise nutrients to promote healing after birth.
If you feel you need more support in your post birth healing please feel free to reach out.