Catherine Pohl (Guest Nutritionist)
Pregnancy and childbirth have been likened to running a marathon, or rather multiple marathons. Research shows us that whilst pregnancy doesn’t have the intense spikes in energy demand that running an ultramarathon or cycling the Tour de France has, it is significantly longer, and a woman’s basal metabolic rate (ie. resting rate) is consistently at almost the maximum possible to endure for a long period of time*.
I say this not with the intention of putting anyone off, but with the perspective of recovery in mind. I mean, you wouldn’t undertake a marathon without planning for your recovery would you? Yet that is essentially what can happen when we don’t have the knowledge or resources to support our bodies well postnatally.
And not only that, on completing the “marathon”, mothers typically undertake new challenges such as breastfeeding, recovering from surgery, not getting any proper sleep… If we aren’t careful, we can end up with quick-fix foods to just keep us going, when what our bodies really need is proper nourishment.
So what do mothers need postnatally?
New mothers often find large meals difficult both in terms of digesting them as well as in terms of practicality, so my recommendation would be to stick to a regular small meals and snacks pattern, particularly for the first couple of months after your baby is born. This also helps to keep blood sugar levels, and therefore energy, more stable. It also makes it easier to get the additional calories that are needed for recovery and breastfeeding (if you are breastfeeding).
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean endless tea and cakes… whilst these are not completely out of the question, it’s important to focus on nutrients. Nutrients are what the body needs to recover and sustain itself (and continue to support a baby).
The focus should be on:
This is what we use to repair and rebuild. It’s important to have meat, fish, chicken, eggs, chickpeas, beans, lentils, nuts or seeds with every meal or snack. Having this can also support energy levels.
These are really important for hormones and brain health. It can be great to include oily fish like salmon and mackerel, avocados, olive oil, nuts, seeds, dairy products.
Omega 3 fats like DHA
These are particularly important for brain health and mood. This is what you find in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) as well as flax and chia seeds and walnuts, however it can be helpful to consider a supplement too to ensure you are getting enough.
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Aiming for a bright rainbow of colours is a great way to get a broad variety of nourishing nutrients, and an easy way to keep up fibre consumption (which is also important for making sure going to the toilet is easy to do!)
Carbs always get bad press, but when it comes to producing energy, they are one of the easiest ways for our bodies to do it. I don’t recommend too many biscuits and sweet treats that are high in sugar and low in other nutrients, but wholegrains like brown bread and pasta, brown rice and starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes are great to include.
Many women also lose blood during childbirth, so keeping an eye on iron intake can also be useful. This should be checked postnatally, and you may well be given a supplement if needed, but it’s worth making sure you get some iron-rich foods, especially as low iron can contribute to tiredness as well. Food sources include meat, especially red meat, eggs, pulses such as chickpeas, leafy green vegetables such as spinach and dried fruits like apricots.
Another tip for consuming vegetable sources of iron like spinach, is to have some vitamin C alongside – a squeeze of lemon juice is a great way to do this.
To help along the way, I usually recommend my clients a good-quality postnatal multi-nutrient to help support any shortfalls. This should include vitamin D (also very important for mood) and for anyone on a vegan or vegetarian diet, a good amount of vitamin B12. Plus an omega 3.
What does this look like practically?
I hear what you’re saying now – how the hell do I get all these foods in right now when I’m tired and busy with a brand new baby?! Well, the first thing to think about is your “team”. Share this article with your partner, family and friends, so that instead of bringing cute but possibly unnecessary additional onesies and toys, they can bring some nourishing food for you instead!
I strongly urge everyone, but especially new mums, to ditch the sugary cereal for breakfast. It’s so low in nutrients it really is a waste of a meal! Eggs make an excellent breakfast choice – rich in protein and healthy fats, they also contain vitamin D and choline which are fantastic for brain health. Cook up a batch of hard-boiled eggs and keep them in the fridge for a few days so that you can grab one or two quickly and easily when you haven’t got the time or arms to be cooking an omelette. They also make a handy snack.
Not a fan of savoury? Why not opt for a low-sugar, high nuts-and-seeds snack bar or flapjack? Whole oats that usually make up the base of these are also a great source of fibre and carbohydrate. You can also make overnight oats with plenty of additional nuts and seeds like chia seeds and almonds, and top them with some fruit and nut butter to get even more nutrients in. You don’t have to think about having to make it before going to bed either – find a convenient moment in the day, it will easily keep 2-3 days in the fridge in an airtight container.
When it comes to snacks, I never want to deprive new mums of their slice of cake, however it can actually become a nutritious snack if you add some fruit and a handful of nuts like almonds alongside. I also recommend keeping a tub of hummus in the fridge to eat with carrots or oatcakes for a fast snack that is high in protein and fibre, and some peanut butter to put onto apple slices.
For lunches and dinners, the best is to opt for minimally processed foods. If you don’t have the capacity to cook much or don’t have anyone to cook for you, consider ordering in some healthy readymade meals to keep in the freezer, or using a box-scheme that will send all the ingredients and a recipe to make sure you can make up a healthy balanced meal speedily, without having to do too much thinking or shopping.
My final word has to be on weight, even though I hate that this is even a conversation... Please don’t worry about it! If you focus on eating healthy foods that give your body the nutrients it needs to recover and support your journey into motherhood, you will get your figure back with some time and a little patience. No two calories are ever the same, so don’t even waste time thinking about them – your body is amazing and it’s just done something truly incredible. Focus on the nutrients to love it back and it will keep on supporting you.
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