This morning, I struggled while sorting through my yoga clothes in preparation for class tonight. I am just beginning the second trimester of this pregnancy and am therefore at the awkward point of not fitting most of my normal clothes while still being too small for maternity wear. So I find myself ferreting out the comfier sweatpants and relaxed shirts in my wardrobe that will tide me over until the inevitable belly and backside explosions that will land me squarely in Maternity Town.
For all the women beginning a pregnancy for the first time, I have a couple suggestions. First, I wouldn’t buy all of your maternity gear upfront. Unlike in the movies, where pretend pregnant actresses look perfectly normal except for a perfect little round belly, real-life pregnancies expand your body in unique and unpredictable ways. My feet, for example, grew TWO SIZES larger for the duration of the pregnancy (luckily, they shrank back to normal afterwards, so don’t freak if this happens to you).
My other suggestion is that unless you have an exorbitant clothes budget, it’s good to raid second-hand stores and sales for cute maternity clothes. It could be my thrifty Scottish genes talking, but it doesn’t make sense to spend a fortune on stuff you are only going to use for a few months. Save your money for good maternity bras and swaddling cloths.
But I digress. My expanding body puts me in mind of all the pregnancy weight-gain terror I experienced the first time around, and I would like to share my experiences in case they are helpful to any other pregnant moms currently living in horror of the scale…
There is a lot of pressure on expecting mothers, to say the least. One day, you’re able to throw back pints with your girlfriends after work, dance till the wee hours of the morning, then chow down on cheap burritos in the middle of the night before collapsing into bed and waking up to an IV of coffee. The next, you see double lines on a stick and suddenly you can’t party with your buddies, stay up late, or drink too much caffeine. But it doesn’t stop there… you also can’t have lunch meat, soft cheeses, rare steak, sushi, shellfish, swordfish, or tuna. You feel a variety of bodily aches and pains, but aren’t allowed to take any Advil, aspirin, Motrin, ibuprofen, or Sudafed to relieve them. You can’t ride roller-coasters or enjoy a sauna or spa. Some people even think you shouldn’t dye your hair, take a bath that’s too warm, or eat nuts (allegedly, you put the fetus at risk for nut allergies). You are allowed to have a couple cups of coffee a day, but be prepared for some dirty stares from the self-appointed Preggie Police if you’re visibly pregnant at Starbucks.
As if all of that isn’t enough, you are further bombarded with admonitions against gaining too much weight. A healthy woman, the experts claim, should only gain 25 – 35 pounds. An overweight woman is supposed to gain even less. Anything more than that puts you and your baby at risk for a host of issues, ranging from gestational diabetes to high blood pressure, as well as apparently demonstrating your utter lack of self-discipline and the obvious milking of your pregnant state for an excuse to eat comical proportions of cartoonish food. Random self-important idiots will display their genius by pointing out that since the baby only weighs eight pounds, you don’t need to be gaining any more than that. Textbooks will explain you shouldn’t need ANY extra calories in the first trimester, and a mere couple hundred more during the second. You will hear all of this while at the same time learning about your greater nutritional needs and how this is a wildly inappropriate time to diet.
All of this madness really did my head in during my first pregnancy. I do not come from a family blessed with naturally high metabolisms. Any sloppiness in my lifestyle starts to quickly show up on the scale, and though I have kept myself at a healthy weight for the majority of my life, it is only because of regular exercise and constant dietary vigilance. Whenever my weight begins to creep up to a certain level, I start recording my intake and wrestling the numbers back into submission. I even purposefully wear clothes without much extra slack lest my weight increase too much before I notice.
So I was downright frightened every morning of my pregnancy as I stepped on the scale and watched the numbers inch up, week by week, until they began outpacing the approved schedule. Moreover, though we supposedly need no extra calories, it was obvious that no one had let my body in on this factoid, for I felt an appetite unlike one I had ever experienced in my life. I would suddenly *need* milk, like one normally needs oxygen. One time, my husband casually grabbed food off my plate, which would be a typical thing for him to do, but before I even knew what I was doing, I had nearly stabbed his hand with my fork to protect the precious, precious calories he was usurping. “My goodness… I’m so sorry,” I said, “I don’t know what just came over me!”
Well, that’s not exactly what I said. It was actually something more along the lines of: “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING!? GIMME THAT,” shrieked fiercely as my wide-eyed husband dropped the tasty morsel and offered to bring the ravenous she-beast whatever she needed. Not only was I hungrier than I ever imagined I could be, but if I went too long without food, i would become increasingly nauseous, light-headed, until eventually throwing up. I tried my best to snack on light cheese sticks, or a handful of nuts, a couple crackers, or any other modest portion of light food. I rarely ate full-on crap, like cheeseburgers or brownies, yet still my weight crept up and up and I was absolutely miserable with the idea that years of self-discipline were collapsing under the heft of pregnancy hormones. A sense of failure and doom haunted every mirror and imagined stare.
The final straw, however, was during my second trimester when a Nurse Practitioner started lecturing me on my weight gain. I had gained the full recommended amount at that point and had no more room to expand during the final months. “But I don’t know what to do!” I cried, “I eat healthy food and I’m not supposed to diet and I just keep gaining weight anyway!” She asked me to detail the sorts of things I was eating so she could suggest better alternatives.
My diet roughly consisted of blended fruit and yogurt smoothies, a couple handfuls of nuts, three or four glasses of milk, fruits and veggies, meat, skim cheeses, and salads with olive oil dressings. The nurse practitioner first informed me that I was drinking far too much milk, and that diet sodas would be preferable. Fat-free dressings and rice cakes would make a nice alternative to olive oil, nuts had too many calories and fat, and the fruit “needs to stop.” “Fruit,” she smugly informed me, “is nature’s candy.”
I was absolutely scandalized, and this is the moment I decided that the weight-shaming of pregnant women has gone too far. We have been eating fruit since we were primates. Now, I can understand avoiding fructose if you have insulin problems, but for everyone else, it represents an ancient source of vitamins and fiber. We NEED fat to be healthy, especially when building people, and what better means than unsaturated sources like nuts, avocados and olive oil? I didn’t say I was eating friend candy bars, after all. We also have higher calcium needs when pregnant, and if our baby doesn’t get enough calcium, it will be leeched straight out of our teeth and bones. My great grandmother used to say that women lost a tooth with every baby… I figured if my body was craving milk that badly, it probably needed it and I’d rather have to exercise off a few more pounds after childbirth than deal with weakened teeth or premature osteoporosis.
The climax of this unholy lecture, however, had to be the suggestion to rely on diet soda and fat-free dressings. There is something terribly wrong when people think avoiding a few extra pounds is worth pumping your body full of artificial sweeteners, coloring, and chemicals, particularly when you have a developing, vulnerable fetus in your body. This was my breaking point, when I decided everyone had gone insane and that I would just continue eating “real” foods, let the pounds happen as they may, and worry about the extra weight after I the baby was born.
I ended up gaining about fifty pounds, though my blood pressure and blood sugar levels remained excellent. Out of curiosity, I asked many other women how much weight they gained during their pregnancy, and was comforted by the fact that nearly everyone admitted they had gained more than they were supposed to. It occurred to me that many celebrities, even while under constant scrutiny from paparazzi hoping to catch them at their worst, were known to have gotten too big while gestating. For example, Jessica Simpson is famous for gaining too much and Jenny McCarthy put on 80 pounds, If these professionals, who are paid millions of dollars to maintain their superhuman ability to keep their weight well below what most of us can manage, couldn’t keep their gain at recommended levels, then maybe something greater than self-discipline is at stake. Those folks are champions of staying in shape, with top-dollar chefs and trainers on staff.
After all the agony I went through during pregnancy wondering what would become of my ballooning figure, I lost about thirty pounds without trying a few weeks after delivering the baby. Much of that was actually peed out, I believe. Since it happened almost immediately, logic suggests that thirty pounds of my gain had been comprised entirely of baby, placenta, and extra fluids. You tend to swell up when pregnant, and you double your blood supply. Either way, I was only about twenty pounds above my starting weight. By six months later, I had lost an additional forty-five pounds, leaving me twenty-five pounds lighter than I had been when I became pregnant.
How did this happen? Well, I started a postpartum exercise class, ate a reasonably healthy diet, and exclusively breastfed my baby. I have been in many exercise classes before without dramatic results, but this time you could practically see the weight fall off my body. I became so thin, in fact, I started getting concerned looks from my friends, who told me I absolutely wasn’t to lose another pound. I even needed to make an effort to eat more food because my weight was dropping too much. This is not normal for me. I also lost the weight differently than I typically do. Usually, I’m a bit pear-shaped, carrying any extra pounds in my thighs. But my legs became unusually slender. I measured them one day just to make sure i wasn’t imagining thing and lo and behold, they were about four inches thinner than they had been previously, when I was at a similar weight.
Here, gentle readers, is my theory: We may have formula available in the modern age, but our bodies don’t know that. Our bodies still think we are cavemen, and that we will need a constant supply of breast milk for our offspring to survive. Most sources estimate the caloric expenditure of exclusive breastfeeding at 500 calories a day, which is a hefty chunk on top of our usual daily needs. Our caveman planners also expect we might be somewhat incapacitated after pregnancy, having neither our typical freedom nor energy to hunt and gather food.
Our caveman DNA doesn’t care how cute we look during pregnancy. We did a solid job looking cute already. After all, we’re pregnant: mission accomplished. We can’t get any more pregnant, so now our body’s top concern becomes our survival and that of our infant. If we run out of calories, our milk will turn off and our baby will starve to death. So… walla! We build a food source packed right into our backsides in case the cupboards go lean.We aren’t just putting on weight to make a baby, we are also creating a calorie supply to make sure our baby makes it through the winter.
I have come across studies that seem to support this theory by demonstrating that breastfeeding appears to specifically target the fat in our butt and thighs. Here are a few links, in case you are interested: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3006166/
Therefore, frightened pregnant women, my advice is to eat quality food throughout your pregnancy, get a reasonable amount of safe exercise, and don’t worry too much about a few extra pounds unless you are already at risk for some reason. If you breastfeed your baby, you will have a automatic caloric deficit working in your favor. It isn’t infinite–you can eat more than 500 extra calories if you really try–but it should help out a lot without forcing you onto a strict diet. It may not work for everyone, but it sure worked for me, and for many of the breastfeeding moms I’ve spoken with. If you aren’t going to breastfeed, you will lose that caloric advantage and it may take you longer to shed the post-pregnancy weight, but I still believe you are better off eating properly and taking good care of yourself than shorting yourself out of a panic about extra pounds. Stay healthy!