The craziness of trying to “get back in shape” after a baby

This is a sticky issue. I’ve been avoiding it for a while, but after several people asked me, “How did you get back in shape so fast after having a baby?” I thought I’d share my thoughts.

First of all, I think it’s insane how much pressure is placed on women to “get back in shape” after having a baby. New mothers feel like a part of their self-worth depends on how quickly they “bounce back” and get their “pre-baby body back.” (Which is a ridiculous idea if you think about it: you had a baby, so your body is forever post-baby! You’re never getting your pre-baby body back, and that’s the whole point!)

The rush to “get back in shape”

How quickly our bodies recover after pregnancy depends on multiple factors (genetic make-up, environmental influences, past injuries, birth-related complications, hormonal fluctuations, etc.), and many of them are not in our immediate control. It’s not so much about doing the right things as much as it is about having patience while supporting your body in helpful ways.

I see a sad trend among new mothers to try to “whip themselves into shape:” women may do very intense exercise regimens that are very cardio-intensive and exhausting but don’t emphasize proper exercise form. As a result, women tend to get injured, which is not what you want when you’re carrying a baby around all day. High-impact exercise can also prevent the pelvic floor from healing properly, causing lingering problems.

What’s more, new mothers are already exhausted due to disrupted sleep, so the body is in a state of stress (lack of sleep is a stressor). High-intensity exercise is another stressor, which can be healthy for the body if the person is getting adequate sleep and recovering properly. But for someone whose sleep is disrupted, intense exercise is hardly a good addition because it adds too much stress to an already stressed system. It may interfere with post-partum recovery, hormonal balance, adrenal health, and milk supply (if the mother is breastfeeding). When a person is in such a state of stress, intense exercise also probably won’t help with fat loss because it will only increase cravings and cause the person to eat more.

In short, new moms don’t need to kill themselves with crazy exercise or super low calories! As you can see, I get very intense about this. I’ve seen too many women try so hard to increase exercise and decrease food, only to find it unsustainable after a few days or weeks. Then, they feel like failures and feel bad about themselves, when in fact the problem lies with the approach and not with them.

Jacob, William, and I at the Black Sea in Bulgaria this summer. We had a wonderful time enjoying the sun!

What did I do?

This is a description of what worked for me. I think the logic is pretty sound and should be applicable to more people, but always take in account your own individual situation.

The first thing I did is that I took care of myself well before pregnancy. I ate well, mostly whole foods that make me feel good (in my case, that’s vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, some fruit, and some nuts), I exercised regularly (strength training three times a week and some high-intensity interval training once or twice a week), walked as much as possible, and slept well.

Then, I also took care of myself during the pregnancy. I continued eating pretty similarly (except during the first trimester, while took me on a roller coaster ride due to nausea), I still strength trained three times a week and did some lighter cardio according to the Moms Gone Strong program, I walked quite a bit, and slept as well (as much as is possible with a big belly). This allowed me to retain some of my muscle mass, which is helpful with all kinds of things such as avoiding injury and keeping the metabolism active. It also meant that I didn’t gain too much weight, so I didn’t have a lot to lose after the pregnancy.

After the pregnancy, things kind of took their own path. I was focused on taking care of a tiny new human, and I didn’t have much interest in food, which is crazy given that I love food! Fortunately, we had healthy eating habits in place, and Jacob, my husband, cooked all of our food, while I was breastfeeding for hours on end. I lost a lot of water weight quite quickly after the birth (in the first few days or week), and the rest of the weight also came off as my body recovered (probably in the first 3 months).

For the first week post-partum, I was just at home, taking care of the little one and figuring out all this new stuff. After one week, I went out for a 15-minute walk for the first time, and that felt amazing! I didn’t want to overdo it though, so I took my time with building the length of my walks. I think that around 6 weeks post-partum I was doing a 1-hour walk or so but not longer.

I also started doing some very gentle exercises around 2 weeks post-partum (such as glute bridge and clam shell for my glutes and lower back), according to the Moms Gone Strong Program. The goal was to support my body’s recovery and add some light movement that felt good.

At 6 weeks post-partum, I started doing light strength training, again following the above program, and it intensified over time (the program lasted 40 weeks). I found the process super helpful as my body had lost a lot of strength during the pregnancy. I remember being shocked at how weak I felt about 1 week post-partum. I could feel that I had lost a lot of muscle and had many random aches and pains. Fortunately, my body recovered well from the marathon that is labor and birth, allowing me to regain my strength over time. It was great to have a program that guided me through the progressions safely and gradually, and I was amazed at my body’s ability to get strong and enduring again.

I also continued eating in mostly the way I had eaten before (except for some foods I had to avoid due to William’s eczema), so still emphasized vegetables, meat, fish, fruit, and nuts. Some people say that if you’re breastfeeding, you can eat whatever you want, and it’s certainly true that making milk takes lots of calories. I definitely ate more than before, but I still tried to eat quality food most of the time. When I ate food that made me feel good and worked for me, I had more energy, which was a great benefit since my sleep was disrupted and I was tired anyway. I appreciated any improvement I could get in my energy (caffeine was off the table since I was breastfeeding).

With regards to sleep, I tried to sleep as much as possible, which wasn’t ideal but was okay. In the first months, I took afternoon naps together with William. I’m not a big fan of naps though, so once his sleep became a bit more solid, I stopped napping. Instead, I went to bed earlier, which worked well for me.

And that’s kind of it! I feel like the main thing I did was to support my body and allow it to recover. At times when I wished my belly were flatter, I reminded myself that it would take time and the best I could do was to continue with my strength training and gradually get myself stronger instead of trying to change my body overnight.

I know that not everyone’s story is so straightforward, and some women will need more support than others. In particular, hypo- and hyperthyroidism can be real issues during the post-partum period as well as autoimmune illnesses. If that’s your case, then I hope you’re getting help for yourself! As new mothers, we’re often focused on our babies, but we need to pay attention and take care of ourselves as well.

I also want to offer others hope by saying that my labor wasn’t a piece of cake (it lasted for 34 hours, and it was tough!), but my recovery was still good. So even if you face challenges and difficulties, your body may still be able to recover well. The most important thing, in my opinion, is to support our bodies and work with them instead of trying to go against them and overpower them. Because the latter just doesn’t work.

What I’ve been eating while pregnant

People often find my food a bit funky. I live in the Netherlands, where lunch usually includes bread of some sort, so when I show up with my homemade salad with protein, people look at me in a questioning way. I used to get annoyed by people’s questions about my food, but I look at it differently now. People usually ask because they’re curious and not because they’re judging. If I keep this in mind, I can engage with people and tell them about the delicious lunch I’ve made.

When I got pregnant, several of my friends said they were surprised I continued eating in my ‘funky’ way. They had expected that I’d eat more ‘normally’ after I became pregnant, and I have to say I also didn’t know what to expect. But I noticed that my body felt best when I ate in the way that worked for me, emphasizing protein, vegetables, and healthful fats. I covered why I think that works well here, and I also talked about my struggle with nausea during the first trimester here.

So what did I eat during my pregnancy?

I will make this super practical and list my favorite meals during this pregnancy. These meals are not only for pregnant women; my husband eats them too, and he’s not pregnant! It’s just that they’ve worked really well for me during pregnancy, while I haven’t been so excited about some meals that I loved before pregnancy.

Breakfast

The breakfast I made for a long time was a frittata–basically, something like this. I usually put zucchini, carrots, and onions in it, but sometimes I switched up the veggies. 12 eggs go in there as well as some minced meat for protein. One such frittata lasts me for four days.

(Note: We often think of eggs as good protein sources, but in fact they don’t contain that much protein. A medium-sized egg contains about 5-6 grams of protein, and I aim for a minimum of 30 g of protein per meal (around 100 g per day). If I wanted to get all my breakfast protein from eggs, I’d have to eat 5-6 eggs… That’s a lot of eggs, and since they contain a lot of fat (in the yolks), I’d be overdoing the fat quite a bit. Therefore, I eat a couple of eggs with my breakfast and some minced or other meat to get my protein needs met and have stable blood sugar throughout the morning. But I make sure to also eat my eggs because they are great sources of choline as well as other nutrients which are super important for pregnant women as well as for people in general. With this type of breakfast, I’m only hungry again after 4-5 hours, which people say is impossible for pregnant women. Well!)

My frittata.

After a while, I got bored of frittata for breakfast though. Now I’m in a period of breakfast soup (it kind of looks like this). I put carrots, parsnip (I live in the Netherlands, where they have lots of parsnips, so let’s use all of these delicious root vegetables!!!), zucchini, and bok choy in a pot as well as spices and herbs. I let them cook (in water) until they turn into a nice soup. I boil eggs on the side and also cook some sort of protein (usually sausage because it gives a nice flavor to the soup). Every morning, I warm up a portion of the soup (the rest stays in the fridge or is frozen), cut up a sausage and two eggs into bite-sized pieces, and add them to the soup. And that’s it! Super simple and tasty.

Lunch

There are many lunch options, but I’ll list my favorites. My current love is a salad with grated carrots and apples and some celery. I usually have a pre-cooked chicken breast on the side and half an avocado with it. On a food prep day, I usually put 4 chicken breasts with spices and salt in the oven (2 for me and 2 for Jacob). I take out the food processor and grate approximately 8 carrots (depends on their size, but about 2 per person per meal) and 4 apples (one per person per meal). I also cut 3-4 celery stalks into small pieces. Then I mix the vegetables and add a dressing of olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, garlic powder, and salt. It’s super simple and amazingly delicious!!!

We also make a similar salad with grated carrots and beets; I prefer it without celery, while Jacob likes that one with celery too. Oh well, no celery it is. That one goes well with a dressing of olive oil, white wine vinegar, powdered mustard seed, and salad. Also super nice! Both of these salads we eat with protein such as chicken or really any other type of protein. If the meat doesn’t contain a lot of fat (such as a chicken breast), I add half an avocado or mayonnaise from avocado oil.

Our carrot and beet salad.

Another lunch I love is meat sauce with vegetables (kind of like this). We put onions in a skillet, then add the minced meat, then add the tomato sauce, spices, herbs, etc. and, if we’re feeling fancy, fried eggplant. On the side, we steam vegetables such as zucchini or broccoli. Then, we serve the vegetables topped with the meat sauce. It’s so simple and super delicious! I like to sprinkle some feta cheese on top for extra flavor (feta cheese is, luckily, one of the few types of dairy that doesn’t upset my stomach as long as I don’t overdo it).

Dinner

I love dinner meals that are made up of some sort of protein, vegetables, and nice herbs/spices/sauces. This gives countless options!

One of my current favorites is salmon cooked in butter, garlic, and lemon juice; baked sweet potato with salt; and steamed brussel sprouts with olive oil, salt, and herbs (I never knew, before moving to the Netherlands, that brussel sprouts can be so delicious!! Now I want to eat them all the time…). I also love this vegetable combo with mackerel, which is, similarly to salmon, also a fish high in healthful fats. And I find it delicious!

Another favorite dinner of mine is chicken leg (baked in the oven for 100 minutes!! only with salt) with sweet potato and roasted cauliflower or broccoli. Super simple and tasty.

Jacob really liked stews, while I’m not a big fan. But he makes a truly delicious stew with stew meat (duh!), onions, pumpkin, carrots, and beets. The key is to put enough pumpkin 😉 as well as nice spices and herbs. I don’t like broccoli or brussel sprouts in a stew because they give it a less pleasant taste, in my opinion, but spinach, kale, and zucchini work well in a stew.

Snacks

Sometimes I get hungry between meals, although I have to say that on some days I’m perfectly fine with just my three meals. If I need a snack, I usually have about 10 macadamia nuts. They’re delicious and rather filling, so they do the job. I also like brazil nuts and almonds; other nuts irritate my stomach, unfortunately.

If I’m not very hungry and just need a small snack, I drink a glass of bouillon or bone broth. It’s tasty (we make it at home), and it contains lots of good stuff for me and the baby such as collagen, but it’s also good for non-pregnant people.

I also have a favorite cocoa drink: 2 teaspoons of cocoa powder, a pinch of cinnamon, hot water, and a teaspoon of honey or some stevia. The taste of warm cocoa is super comforting, especially in the autumn/winter months!

If I want something sweet to eat, I eat our dark chocolate with caramel and sea salt (yummy!), but I can’t eat it too late or I don’t fall asleep because cocoa has some caffeine (people who drink coffee before bed will find this hilarious, but oh well…).

I also like baked apples with cinnamon in the oven (super simple and delicious!!), blueberries with honey, or just tangerines. One of these is usually my dessert in the evenings.

How do carbs figure in this way of eating?

Picking up the thread from my previous blog post, you may have noticed that I don’t really eat processed carbs (except on exceptions) since there is no bread, dough, cereal, or other such source in the foods I’ve described. I still get carbs, though, from vegetables. In my breakfast, there’s parsnip; in my lunches, there are beets, apples, or tomato sauce; in my dinners, there are sweet potatoes or pumpkin. I don’t include a lot of carbs in my meals, but it’s what works well for me. Other people might need more or less carbs than this to feel their best.

Do I ever eat other foods?!?!

People have asked me, “Don’t you ever eat other foods?” meaning ‘less healthy’ foods or foods that don’t work so well for me. Of course I do! There are times when I decide that it’s worth it to have something that I don’t usually eat.

Me eating a pecan pie.

I just need to take into account how I’ll feel afterwards. If I have something sweet in the afternoon, such as the pecan pie in the photo above or a fantastic brownie, that’s usually fine. I get a sugar peak and a dip and some bloating, but once in a while it’s not so bad. If I have a cheesecake or tiramisu, I’m in for more trouble because the dairy gives me more digestive issues, and I may be pretty uncomfortable for a while.

Gluten is another one that I have sometimes. If I don’t eat too much of it, it’s okay (such as in a cake or so). But if I eat a whole pizza, I’ll have issues for a couple of days afterwards, so it’s rarely worth it for me, especially since there often are gluten-free options for these things.

A difficult one is sushi. I love sushi, and one of the most difficult things about this pregnancy has been that I can’t eat raw fish (this recommendation may change in the future, but we’ll see). Still, I sometimes ate sushi with cooked fish during my pregnancy. While I loooooove it, the rice seriously expands in my belly afterwards. With an already big, pregnant belly, there isn’t that much space for extra expansion due to rice, so I’m not eating too much sushi these days 😦

And then there are foods that I just don’t eat. Spicy (as in ‘hot’) foods give me lots of pain and wreck me for days, so I avoid them completely. I also avoid alcohol because it makes my stomach upset for days after that. Oh, and since I’m pregnant, it’s probably not the best idea 😉

I know many pregnant women say they miss wine or beer the most and can’t wait to have it again once the baby comes. For me, that’s not particularly appetizing because I already wasn’t drinking for about 2 years before getting pregnant. But the things I really look forward to are raw fish and a medium-rare steak!!! This baby is supposed to come out in 2 days (or soon after), so I’ve almost made it! Just a little more patience…