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Ignore the hype, real women don’t ‘bounce back’ to their pre-pregnant shape

Welcome to part six of The science behind weight loss, a Conversation series in which we separate the myths about dieting from the realities of exercise and nutrition. Here, Caroline Homer, Professor of…

Miranda Kerr lost her pregnancy weight and was back on the runway six months after giving birth. AAP

Welcome to part six of The science behind weight loss, a Conversation series in which we separate the myths about dieting from the realities of exercise and nutrition. Here, Caroline Homer, Professor of Midwifery from the University of Technology Sydney, examines the pressures on women to lose weight after giving birth:

Women are often bombarded with contradictory advice after childbirth – from health professionals, family, friends, and other new mums on social networking sites – about how to shift the weight they gained during pregnancy.

Some of this advice is evidence-based and centred on eating a variety of nutritious foods and getting regular exercise. But much of it is based on fad diets, unrealistic claims and outdated information.

There is also a constant barrage of stories in the media about celebrities losing weight quickly after giving birth.

To assess the influence these stories have on women’s post-pregnancy body image and expectations, Heike Roth (a UTS Honours student), Professor Jennifer Fenwick and I recently analysed how the Australian media portrays the childbearing body through the use of celebrity stories in women’s magazines.

One of the most distinctive messages we found was that after giving birth, women should strive towards regaining a pre-pregnant body shape with the same effort they would employ when recovering from an illness. The implication was that changes to the body during pregnancy were unnatural, unhealthy and weak.

The stories glamorised speedy post-pregnancy weight loss and centered on three specific themes: “racing to bounce back”, “breastfeeding to bounce back” and “pretending to bounce back”.

Rebecca Judd at the 2011 Brownlow Medal ceremony, just two months after giving birth. AAP

“Exemplary women”, such as celebrities, “bounced back” to their pre-pregnant shape, often just a few weeks after giving birth.

And while the celebrities “raced” to get their bodies back, magazines competed with each other to publish the first pictures of the celebrity’s “new”, “improved”, post-pregnant body. This included advice about wearing body-shaping underwear and up-lifting bras to regain their figure.

The benefits of breastfeeding were frequently mentioned. But these stories prioritised breastfeeding as a way to lose weight and regain the pre-pregnancy body, rather than providing nutrition to the infant.

The post-pregnancy period is usually one of great joy and happiness, but a lack of sleep and physical and psychological problems – such as backache, urinary and faecal incontinence, depression and fatigue – make this an enormously challenging time.

These unrealistic stories of bouncing back from pregnancy create additional pressures on women to lose weight quickly, through fad diets and excessive exercise. And they’re unhelpful for a community striving to achieve a balance between an obsession with thinness and an epidemic of obesity.

Breastfeeding

The World Health Organization and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council recommend breastfeeding as the best source of nutrition for infants. Women should aim to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months.

There is compelling evidence that breastfeeding protects infants against a range of short and longer-term health problems such as allergies, infections and obesity.

Geoff Snodgrass

A nutritious diet is important for a breastfeeding woman’s own health and energy levels. But contrary to popular belief, her diet has less of an impact on the quality of her breast milk and on her baby.

Even in countries where food is scarce, mothers are able to breastfeed and their babies thrive. As the Australian Breastfeeding Association notes, “a ‘perfect’ diet is not required for breastfeeding".

Breastfeeding has long been promoted as a useful weight loss measure. But a recent review of the evidence from researchers at the University of Sydney shows this may not actually be the case.

Evidence from prospective cohort studies in developed countries showed the effect of exclusive breastfeeding on post-partum weight loss was negligible. Other factors, such as household income, baseline body mass index (BMI), ethnicity, gestational weight gain and energy intake, had a much larger impact on women’s ability to shed weight after birth.

Healthy weight

New mothers shouldn’t feel rushed to lose the weight they gained during pregnancy but it’s important they gradually achieve a healthy weight.

For many women, the first year or two after birth is a time when they start thinking about having another baby. Losing weight between pregnancies will help prevent incremental weight gain over successive pregnancies and avoid the risk of complications.

Pregnant women who are obese at the onset of pregnancy have a higher chance of developing pregnancy-related diabetes (gestational diabetes), increased blood pressure (hypertension), and problems with clots in the legs or the lungs.

It can be difficult for women with a new baby to get daily exercise as well as cope with a lack of sleep and other health concerns.

Women need support from friends, family and health professionals during this difficult time. They certainly don’t need to be bombarded with unrealistic stories about celebrity post-baby weight loss.

This is the sixth part of our series The science behind weight loss. To read the other instalments, follow the links below:

Part One: Diets and weight loss: separating facts from fiction
Part Two: Want to set up a weight loss scam? Here’s how…
Part Three: Feel manipulated? Anxious? Tune out the hype and learn to love your body
Part Four: Food v exercise: What makes the biggest difference in weight loss?
Part Five: An online tool to help achieve your weight-loss goal (no, it’s not a fad diet)
Part Seven: Quick and easy, or painful and risky? The truth about liposuction
Part Eight: Weight loss and the brain: why it’s difficult to control our expanding waistlines
Part Nine: Are diet pills the silver bullet for obesity?
Part Ten: Want to try the latest fad diet? Just ask your local pharmacist

Join the conversation

6 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    “Women are often bombarded with contradictory advice after childbirth – from health professionals, family, friends, and other new mums on social networking sites – about how to shift the weight they gained during pregnancy.”

    Is this true or imagined?

    I tend to think it is imagined?

    There seems to be quite a lot of complaint about how women are oppressed because of this and that, and now they are oppressed because of pictures of models in magazines. If this is the case, women don’t have to read the magazines, and no one is forcing them to read the magazines.

    I believe most of their so-called oppression is imagined.

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  2. Leanne Hall

    Clinical Psychologist/Epidemiologist at University of Sydney

    Once again our obsession with looks strikes again!!!

    I love the fact that you have brought the attention back to where it belongs....the health needs of BOTH mother and child!

    It takes our body 9 months to accommodate the needs of a growing child, common sense must tell us that it takes AT LEAST the same amount of time for our bodies to re-adjust following child birth.

    It should not be about losing weight either, often our bodies change after child-birth and so it's not realistic for many women to try and regain their "pre baby shape". Again, the priority should be about feeling healthy and strong....which is hard with sleep deprivation etc... and takes time.

    Having a child is a huge adjustment, and all new mums need to feel that it's ok to feel overwhelmed. Lets be honest about our struggles, and not just our successes.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Leanne Hall

      “Once again our obsession with looks strikes again!!!”

      True, so why are women in this country so obsessed with reading women’s magazines? They sell more copies than every other type of magazine combined, yet they are filled with consumerism, gossip, and heavily doctored photos of other women.

      I would think women’s magazines should be seriously reviewed to determine if reading them constitutes a significant health hazard.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      “so why are women in this country so obsessed with reading women’s magazines?”

      No answer, so I will give an answer. Reading women’s magazines is highly addictive, and these magazines are purposely designed to be addictive.

      Written mostly by spin sisters for commercial gain, they play upon women’s anxieties, and attempt to make women feel inadequate, victimised, unhappy, insecure or lacking in some way, so women are then more likely to buy the products being advertised by the magazines.

      Reading these magazines can have serious consequences for women, and for those that have to live with them. Because there are now so many of these magazines being read, they should carry a health warning.

      Or, as an alternative, universities can improve upon their teaching of journalism and media, because so many of the editors, journalists and contributors to these magazines were taught in universities.

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  3. Janice Kennedy

    Instructional Designer

    Great article and I agree with the content entirely..........but the heading for this article is insulting and judgmental. I can assure you many women do bounce back to their pre-pregnancy shape, and they are just as sensitive and real as the women who struggle to re gain their pre-pregnancy shape. I agree that media hypes this up all the time. My advice is to stop reading poor quality magazines, and start reading intelligent material. Sorry but the heading of this article undoes any good that follows. Real women are of all shapes and sizes. Don't forget that!

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Janice Kennedy

      "stop reading poor quality magazines, and start reading intelligent material"

      I'm wondering when that process in women will actually start.

      Women's reading material has spread to newspapers with articles such as "Winslet's butt-shaking example" and also numerous TV shows that seem to begin just after the children go to school, and finish just before they come home.

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