Fat happens: get up, get out and shake it
Three months after my baby’s birth, I realised the only muscle left toned in my entire body was my uterus. Somewhere in the local department store change-room, between slipping out of a racy red slip and putting on a pair of pink velour tracksuit pants, I found myself standing in my underwear in multifaceted, infinitely angled misery.
“Give yourself time,” my mother cooed from the slender luxury of a size 34 and thirty years of selective amnesia. “It will come off in time.”
“How much time?” I asked.
“A year,” she offered, turning quickly to examine the spring onions.
I wanted a quantifiable schedule. “How long did it take you?”
“It varied with each of you but a minimum of eighteen months each.”
That was back in the days when dieting was not an exact science, I rationalised, after the shock wore off days later. She did not know that carbohydrates are another form of fat. She thought dieting was eating cottage cheese instead of butter on her baked potato. She did not have the options I have today.
“I give myself six months.”
THE MIRROR TRAUMA HAD ALSO MADE ME REFLECT ON THE LAST FEW MONTHS. It dawned on me that I had made some fundamental miscalculations in the early days.
Week Two: I had entertained some guests for tea. I had emerged in a sexy spaghetti strap vest and maternity pants. Everyone had said I was looking good.
“I can hardly even tell you had a baby two weeks ago,” some smirking guest said. My mother quietly slipped her pashmina over my shoulders saying I mustn’t get cold.
Spurred on by all the compliments, I made miscalculation number two later that day.
I defied the laws of physics and managed to squeeze into a pair of my old Levis. I had tried them on two days after the birth and was amazed I could not get them higher than my knees.
Now I had them on. It had been so long since I had worn them, I just couldn’t wait. I giggled as I lay on the floor and literally tucked handfuls of fat into the waistband.
“Look,” I screamed triumphantly, sashaying down the stairs. “I’m back in my jeans.”
The look of wide-eyed horror on my husband’s face said it all. I mistakenly read it as delight. I didn’t realise that the top half of my torso looked like a genie popping out of a teeny bottle.
“Wear them round the house a bit first,” he suggested diplomatically, “until you are comfortable going out in public in them.”
I took them off about ten minutes later. But only because I could not sit down in them.
The first few months were a series of diet devastations as it slowly dawned on me that this fat was just not coming off. Not that losing weight has ever been particularly easy for me. It’s just that I never thought I would fail outright. I hired a personal trainer who measured my body fat at forty per cent. Could almost half my entire body be fat? I ran and ran and pushed more weights than Pink. Nothing. Not a kilogram shifted.
I now have new rules. No scales. No diets. No bikinis. There will be no beach holiday this year.
After the birth, there is some level of expectation that your stomach will vanish almost immediately. Sure, you tell yourself, you’ll have to deal with the loose skin slowly moving back into place but the general bulk will be gone.
But it is not just your stomach. The fat is everywhere. Despite nine months of living in outsize clothing, it really does come as a shock. You thought it was your pregnant belly that was stopping you from slipping on your brand name jeans. But now that, that has gone, you still cannot get the waistband higher than your knees. What is all that fat doing there? And why do you have dimples on your inner knees, not just your inner thighs?
There are two issues to contend with:
· First : You are actually fat.
· Second : You have an entirely different body. Your stomach alone does not carry your baby, your whole body does.
Some would say your uncooperative body itself is one of the first signs the physical universe is giving you that nothing in your life will ever be the same again.
Underlying it all, is an overwhelming sense of disappointment and self-judgement. Call it the last hangover of your old life, but some part of you thinks that your body and life will just return to normal after the birth, that it was just a tummy you had created not a whole new body and a whole new life for yourself.
What sort of weight are we talking about?
You are going to lose a large amount over the birth and the first two weeks. The average weight gain during a nine month pregnancy is eleven to fifteen kilograms. If you are underweight prepregnancy, you may be advised to gain more weight, in the region of fourteen to sixteen kilograms. If you are overweight when you fall pregnant, your doctor will advise you to gain less, so you remain in a healthy weight zone. A severely overweight woman should gain as little as six to eight kilos. These figures are averages. But in reality, weight gain can be anything from four to forty kilos. During the birth, expect to lose 5.6 to 6.3 kg:
Baby: 3 kg
Amniotic fluid: 1kg
Placenta: 800 gm
Fluid loss: 1.5 kg
Blood loss: 500 gm
This leaves 5.4 to 9.5kg of excess weight.
The absolute minimum additional weight you are going to have to tackle is five kilograms of fat that your body has laid down for breastfeeding reserves, which means women who don’t breastfeed are going to have to work extra hard to lose that extra weight.
Your breasts are probably each carrying one kilo of extra weight. The loss of muscle, as you became sedentary during pregnancy, combined with fat accumulation, means you are looking at body fat of sixty per cent post birth and a slow fall back to anything near twenty per cent, which is where a woman should aim.
The first thing to do is relax. It’s a lot, but you can lose it. Just not as fast as you would expect. How those kilos crept on is no longer relevant and agonising over what you ate is a waste of time. This is a temporary state, but you are going to have to work to get out of it.
As a rule, give yourself a year to return to your pre-pregnancy weight. (This does not mean you will return to your pre-pregnancy body in that time.) In fact, it is a very real possibility that you will never have that same body again. That’s not to say the new body will be any worse, only different.
When can I get cracking?
We can't all afford to charter a chopper to calm our tot like Vicky Beckham. This means the most muscle action you are going to get in the first three months is developing a rocking and burping arm. It looks something like the forearm of the Incredible Hulk, but it’s only your right arm. By the time twelve months are over, you will outpace your husband in pull-ups and be able to throw the shot put like an Olympian. That’s one body part you can look forward to – Madonna biceps. Of course, that’s the only body part that will be toned.
Conventional wisdom says don’t start dieting or exercising vigorously before you have your six-week checkup. Your doctor will give you the go-ahead to embark on an exercise boot camp. Of course most of us don’t give a toss about conventional wisdom. We want our bodies back.
But while you are in the six-week period, your body is still in a very altered state and it’s possibly a good time just to give yourself a wee break for once in your life. If you exercised throughout your pregnancy and are generally fit, there is no reason not to start some gentle exercises at home. You should start with sit ups within a few days of delivery if you had a natural birth. In any case, remember that your joints and ligaments will still be relatively loose for three to five months, so don’t plunge into strenuous activity. You are not the gym bunny you were a few months ago, and a strained muscle is going to drive you to distraction. So start with caution and build up. If the last time you exercised was on the high school tennis team, now is not the time to start training for a half-marathon. Your body will let you know if you are doing too much too soon. If your vaginal bleeding (lochia) gets increasingly red or restarts, chances are you are pushing yourself too hard.
Exercising after a C-section
Early exercise will increase healing capacity. It also assists in overcoming constipation, a major setback for some C-section moms.
· There is no medical reason for you to be bedridden or inactive, and you can even start gentle stomach exercises, unless your abdominal muscles were severed in the operation.
· Start slowly with a walk to the shops and increase as you feel stronger and more able to move further or faster.
· Distinguish between good pain and bad pain. Mild pain may occur as you start to get parts of your body moving that have been inactive. You can push through it, but don’t ignore a sharp pain.
What changed about you?
Despite the fact that everyone tells you that you will lose your weight breastfeeding, this is rarely true. Some women do drop weight like a stone while nursing. Others cannot shift a gram until months after they stop. Each body is unique and will respond differently to breastfeeding. For a good indication of your body’s hormonal reaction to feeding, chat to your mom, sisters or aunts to find out their experiences. Chances are, you are cut from the same cloth.
Can you start to cut down your calorie intake while breastfeeding? Certainly. What a good time to get into a healthy eating pattern, especially if you gained unnecessary weight during your pregnancy.
There is absolutely no risk to your baby. You body is geared to shed its own fat for the good of the baby. It has specifically catered for this event by padding you all over with fat reserves. Let’s be sensible. Even in Somalia, nomadic tribes who sometimes eat only once a week manage to raise totally healthy babies. We are bamboozled by misinformation and pushed to eat beyond our needs.
If you are calorie restricting, your baby will be fine. The only risk you run is to yourself. The hormones that are protecting your bones from losing calcium during the pregnancy are no longer active, so you need to monitor your calcium intake. Also, your own energy reserves can run down fast, leaving you tired and listless if you are under eating. Don’t do anything stupid like embark on a grapefruit fast. There are a wealth of good, balanced eating programmes out there that are safe to do while breastfeeding. Even a dramatic calori reduction (to a healthy level, of course) will not harm your baby in the slightest.
2. Peer Group Pressure
There is a huge misconception that you have to eat like a marathon runner to breastfeed a baby. In fact, family members can round on you like a pack of dogs should you pass over a second portion of trifle. You continually find yourself pressured into eating more than you ever imagined with the reassurance that you need to ‘eat for two’. That is nonsense. In fact, you need only an extra 500 calories a day while nursing, and that’s about two extra pieces of fruit. You need to stand your ground if you are eating to make other people feel better. All you need to produce enough milk is extra fluid, preferably water.
Metabolism, simply put, is the rate at which your body burns up and uses the food you eat. The faster and more efficiently the metabolism runs, the more calories are burned by the body for energy and the more weight you will lose. More important is that the calories burned by the metabolism are partly, if not mainly, in the form of body fat. Ayurvedic medicine believes that your agni (fire) is all but extinguished after giving birth and needs to be carefully stoked again with warm foods, warm liquids and brisk daily massage. It suggests you avoid any raw or cold foods and even steam your fruit, to warm your body and restore metabolism.
Each of us has a unique basal, or resting, metabolic rate. This is the amount of energy your body would require to function if you just lay in bed all day (a luxury you give up with a baby). Everything your body does to keep itself going requires energy – making new cells, growing hair, pumping blood, feeding organs and moving around. You are burning calories every second of the day whether you are digesting food, sitting in a chair or sleeping.
In fact, your resting metabolism is responsible for approximately sixty per cent of all calories (energy) used in the body.
· Physical activity accounts for approximately thirty per cent.
· Digesting and processing meals accounts for ten per cent.
This is why metabolism is primarily genetic. The only amount you can really influence is the thirty per cent that accounts for your physical activity component. This also means any starvation diet, or even skipping meals, will rob you of a portion of the ten per cent you use to digest food. It’s a large component so beware of skipping meals.
Your thyroid gland regulates several hormones and it drops production of most of these significantly after birth. It returns to normal functioning in three stages; the length of these will depend on whether you breastfeed. Breastfeeding usually stimulates the metabolism.
· Stage one: Hyperthyroidism is where the thyroid goes into overdrive. This often results in anxiety and insomnia. This stage can last from three to six months.
· Stage two: Hypothyroidism is where production is slowed. During this phase you can experience lethargy and weight gain.
· Stage three: Output has reached pre-pregnant levels. This will vary depending on whether you breastfeed and can take up to two years.