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Breastfeeding and Fat Loss

Why is it hard for some women to lose fat while breastfeeding when it just melts off others? Like I mentioned in my first blog of this series, I thought weight loss was a happy side effect of the already amazing benefits of breastfeeding my baby. Personally, I feel like breastfeeding helped me shrink the postpartum mommy pooch soon after my delivery, but then I hit a plateau after one month post-partum. I’m sure there are many women reading this noticing the same thing. You’ve all heard someone say, “So and so did nothing but breastfeed and the baby fat just melted off.” You, on the other hand, have been busting your butt in the gym and eating healthy and cannot get past a certain point in your weight loss efforts. It is so frustrating because even with our busy new mommy lives you are still putting in the effort to eating right and fitting in workouts, but nothing seems to be working.

The truth is breastfeeding, although great for you and your child, sometimes puts a halt on your fat burning potential. How is this possible? Most of us know while breastfeeding you burn an average of 300-800 extra calories. That is similar caloric expenditure to an intense workout.  The two biggest reasons why some women can lose so easily and others cannot are because everybody has a different set of genetics and a different original pre-pregnancy hormonal make-up. This makes it really hard to compare one breastfeeding mom to another. Outside those two big factors, we are all dealing with different lifestyles that can contribute to stalling weight loss and even promote weight gain- yikes!

It’s super important to be aware that stress releases cortisol. Too much of this hormone causes your metabolism to slow. When you are not sleeping and getting restorative sleep, cortisol lingers in the body. I know that I was super happy and amazed with my new life, and my little love bug, but let’s be honest, it’s not stress free. There are many stressful days and nights with hardly any sleep, especially if you are breastfeeding. Stress and lack of sleep will cause adrenal glands to slow down. A lot of moms grab the nearest snack for a pick me up. These choices aren’t usually the healthiest.

Lack of sleep can also mess with your hunger signals causing you to over eat or under eat.  Not eating enough was a big factor for me. Surprisingly, this causes us to actually hold on to fat. When you are super busy and overwhelmed, often you forget to eat. If you cut calories on purpose to help shed the extra weight often that back fires.  This tends to make the body think there is a famine, and the body actually stores body fat as an energy reserve. Your body always wants to protect your milk supply.  Keep in mind, how many calories you are burning is different for everyone. If a mother is breastfeeding every 1-1.5 hours, she will burn more calories than a mother that nurses only a couple times a day or supplements with formula. The amount of nursing you do usually changes throughout the baby’s first year. This all factors into how many calories your body burns each day.

Why is fat loss so different for a breastfeeding woman compared to a woman who isn’t nursing? Hormones are very different when you are nursing than any other time in your life. The closest thing comparable is menopause. This is all important to understand, especially if you are one of those women that is having no luck no matter what you do. Let’s dig in a little.If you are breastfeeding, your hormonal make up is low testosterone, low estrogen, and low progesterone. Lack of ovulation will lower your progesterone, which is very common for mothers breastfeeding. Progesterone plays a role in stopping belly fat storage by moderating cortisol’s effect in these fat cells. Testosterone is a key hormone that needs to be at the right level to burn fat, having an efficient metabolism, and maintaining muscle. Estrogen usually gets a bad name, but actually it is also needed to keep us lean and burn fat effectively. Without estrogen at the right level, our metabolism isn’t very forgiving. The combination of low estrogen and low progesterone makes us much more sensitive to carbohydrates and have a harder time dropping fat. We also have an elevated hormone called prolactin.

Prolactin is the hormone that is secreted by the pituitary gland during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It triggers milk production and encourages the body to put on 5-10lbs of fat for reserves. Obviously creating food for our babies is truly amazing, but unfortunately prolactin is linked to fat storage. Prolactin levels rise every single time the baby nurses. It affects the body’s ability to metabolize fat. It is almost like a safe guard placed to protect the baby’s milk supply. While we were pregnant prolactin was kept in check by progesterone and estrogen levels. We know now, that once we start producing milk and nursing those levels of estrogen and progesterone drop significantly.  This is a basic overview of why these hormones don’t help breastfeeding mothers. This issue is so diverse that all our daily metabolism is effected by all our hormones depending where we are in our postpartum journey.

Unfortunately, if you had metabolic issues before you got pregnant, then your breastfeeding hormonal profile tends to make the issues even worse. Remember that this is all temporary. In the grand spectrum of things, your hormones and your body will get back to normal soon. During my research, I read that some studies show as early as 4-6 months postpartum your prolactin levels drop slightly. In turn, some moms will see more fat burning during that time and after. When the baby weans entirely, prolactin further drops and most can finally lose the last bit of weight that they couldn’t while breastfeeding.  There are things you can do to still burn fat slowly while you are breastfeeding. In my next blog, I will go into some tips you can do which will help you burn fat even while breastfeeding. Being a mom really is a daily sacrifice, but it is worth it every minute. It may feel like a battle of working against hormones, stress, and lack of sleep, but if you implement the right tools and attitude it is only a matter of time before things will come together.


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