January 17, 2010
After Jen Matlack had a baby, the Connecticut mom went on what she called the easiest and most effective weight-loss regimen of her life. For three years she breast-fed her daughter Mae and ate whatever she wanted. Her baby weight — and more — seemed to magically melt away.
"I tell everyone if I could have done it until Mae turned 15, I would have," said Matlack, 39, a freelance writer. "I was the thinnest I'd ever been."
Researchers have long suspected that breast-feeding, which burns an extra 500 calories a day, helps blast away postpartum flab. Even if moms can't nurse, some diligently hook themselves up to pumping machines, partly inspired by the thought of getting back into their skinny jeans.
But despite the anecdotal stories from breast-feeding moms and celebrity endorsements from stars such as Rebecca Romijn and Angelina Jolie, who credit nursing with helping them reclaim their figures, research is mixed.
Like any diet, postpartum slimming is a function of calories in and calories out. With all things equal, lactating women probably burn more calories than non-lactating women, said Karen Wosje, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. But her work has shown that the greater burn is offset by higher calorie intake, possibly because the hormone prolactin, which stimulates appetite in animal models, is higher in lactating women.
Still, other studies have shown lactation enhances postpartum weight loss if breast-feeding continues for at least six months. And a 2008 study of 36,000 Danish women published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed breast-feeding can help eliminate weight retention by six months postpartum.
"Women will stop losing or begin to regain weight as soon as their caloric balance — a function of the amount of milk produced, how much they eat and how much energy they spend moving around — tips toward the positive," said Cornell University nutrition professor Kathleen Rasmussen, an author of the Danish study. "This can occur while women are still nursing or pumping."
But not all women can boast about spectacular results. Idaho's Kristen Burris, an acupuncturist and herbalist, tried unsuccessfully to pump off extra calories after both of her pregnancies. "I literally had two freezers full of pumped milk in hopes of shedding extra baby weight," said Burris, who specializes in postpartum health. "I had to lose 42 pounds the old-fashioned way: through decreased calorie intake with nutritional supplementation and exercise."
The problem? She was ravenous. The more milk she produced, the more she wanted to eat. "The hunger is insatiable, and we often eat back the calories we laboriously burned," she said.
Moreover, being tired, stressed or hungry will destroy efforts to eat well, said registered dietitian Eileen Behan, author of "Eat Well, Lose Weight, While Breastfeeding" (Ballantine, 2007). Behan suggests new moms stay on a regular eating schedule and keep nutritious food in the house.
Based on her team's findings, Wosje urges doctors, nurses and lactation consultants to avoid telling women that they will lose weight faster by breast-feeding.
"There are many other good reasons to breast-feed the baby, including the bonding between mother and infant and providing the unique combination of nutrients and immune factors that only the mother's milk can offer," she said.
And eventually, breast-feeding will end. When Matlack stopped nursing, she gained 8 pounds, which put her back at her prepregnancy weight of 138. Now she watches what she eats and exercises regularly. "I still mourn that time when I was nursing, partly because I loved breast-feeding and being so close to my daughter," said Matlack, but also "because I was wearing all of my skinny clothes. Not anymore."
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