Learn how being a parent changes your body, affects how you eat, and what you can do about it.
How Parenting Affect Your Weight and Eating Habits
"Studies have shown that we’re most likely to gain weight during three key life events: going to college, getting a job, and becoming a parent."
You love your children, but if you’re not crazy about the body changes that come with being a parent, you’re not alone.
Studies have shown that we’re most likely to gain weight during three key life events: going to college, getting a job, and becoming a parent.
These weight changes aren’t exclusive to women: roughly fifty-percent of men gain up to 30 pounds of body weight when their partners are expecting. Plus, for both men and women, having more children increases your chances of gaining weight.
But the physical challenge doesn’t end once the baby is born. As any new parent can tell you, caring for a newborn and adjusting to new routines while recovering from childbirth is a real struggle — in addition to trying to achieve a healthy, post-baby weight.
But there are behaviors and habits you can adopt to keep the whole family healthy moving forward.
How Pregnancy Changes Your Body
Getting back into shape after pregnancy doesn’t happen overnight, and you might feel stuck with a few extra pounds. One 2015 study found that, a year after giving birth, 75-percent of women weighed more than they had before being pregnant, with 47-percent of these women being 10 pounds heavier and 25-percent increasing their weight by 20 pounds or more.
"And it turns out that the older you are when you’re pregnant, and the greater the number of children you have, makes it easier to put on extra weight and harder to lose it again."
While there’s a good reason for that weight gain — which gives a mother-to-be an energy reserve for birth and breastfeeding — it’s common for extra fat to linger. Studies show that hormonal changes and a tendency to accumulate fat can last long after childbearing.
And it turns out that the older you are when you’re pregnant, and the greater the number of children you have, makes it easier to put on extra weight and harder to lose it again.
Why It’s Hard for Parents to Focus on Self-Care
Having children changes your life. Along with the many joys of being a parent, there can also be a serious lack of time, energy, and focus — which can lead to less-than-stellar nutrition and fitness choices.
Let’s face it, it’s hard for parents, and dare I say particularly difficult for mothers, to focus on self-care. As Jessica Zuik, founder of Connected Mothers Coaching notes, “The issue is more complex than “we simply don’t have enough time”. Our views on self care reflect back to the images we saw growing up. How did we see the women in our lives taking care of themselves? Did we see women who valued their appearance, or their health, or their mental stability, or their ability to grow a business or career, or taking time to find presence and stillness through mindfulness and mediation? The women we grew up watching became the role models for how we care for ourselves. One major barrier to women focusing on self-care is that she might not have a real-life role model who showed her what it looks like to care for a family and care for herself at the same time.”
“self care has become just one more thing women “have to do”. Our to-do lists are already overflowing with items that we believe to be essential to the management of our families and their needs."
Secondly, Jessica Zuik notes, “self care has become just one more thing women “have to do”. Our to-do lists are already overflowing with items that we believe to be essential to the management of our families and their needs. Adding even more bullet points to that list can be overwhelming to the point that we ultimately end up pushing the self-care items to the bottom of the list…until the point that we just let them fall completely off.”
How Parenting Affects Your Eating Habits
While June Cleaver or Donna Reed presented perfect — and impossible — ideals of happy, healthy home life, recent studies show that multiple triggers — including sleep deprivation, fatigue, eating mindlessly, and stress — often lead to parents gaining weight.
“There seems to be this societally accepted belief that when a woman becomes a mother she must sacrifice for her family.” Jessica Zuik notes. “She begins to live for other people - devoting her body, her time, her energy, and all of her love to nurturing her family. This belief gets in the way of women taking the time to focus on their own health. As a result of constantly putting others' needs before her own,” Jessica states, “women ultimately end up sacrificing their own health in the process. We will make three different meals for our children in one sitting, but won’t take the time to make one nourishing dish that will feed our body and soul because it feels a little too self-indulgent. It’s as if we believe our time is better spent on others than on ourselves.”
“Mothers often see the act of making themselves a nourishing meal they will enjoy as a luxury…a little self-indulgent. "
In her work coaching mothers, Jessica has seen over and over that “Mothers often see the act of making themselves a nourishing meal they will enjoy as a luxury…a little self-indulgent. It’s as if they are saying, “why would I make myself a hearty and delicious sandwich when I can eat this perfectly edible (albeit gnawed on) piece of pizza crust my child didn’t finish.” Yuck, but then again I know many moms, myself included, that have definitely been in this situation.”
Rima Kleiner, MS, RD, and “Dish on Fish” blogger in Beachbody on Demand’s “The Busy Parent’s Guide to Losing Weight” admits the same. She states that “Before I had children, I didn’t fully understand how you don’t have time to get a healthy meal on the table or wake up 30 minutes earlier to exercise. But just as getting up in the middle of the night for feedings and soothing nightmares can interrupt early morning workout routines, fatigue and fussy little eaters can get in the way of healthy eating for the whole family.”
But modeling good behaviors — like making better nutrition choices and carving out time for both exercise and rest — can set productive examples for your kids, who are probably watching and learning from you more than you think.
How to Help Yourself (and Your Family) Focus on Health and Self Care
It’s an unfortunate fact that poor diets can set children up for a lifetime of problems — including heart disease and type-2 diabetes — and can impact academic achievement, too.
Family dinners are one way to put healthy behaviors and good nutrition front and center.
"When you’re not paying attention to the television or smartphones, you’re paying more attention to each other, and to the food on your plate."
With no screens away from the table, the family dinner is a great time to reconnect with your kids. When you’re not paying attention to the television or smartphones, you’re paying more attention to each other, and to the food on your plate. You can talk about the origins of every part of the meal, and about the family history and cultural significance of each dish.
Keeping dinners timely can also be key. A study in the journal Obesity found that people who ate after 8 o’clock at night consumed the most calories and had the highest BMIs. And try not to be in a rush: when you take your time to enjoy your meal, it’s easier to notice when you’re full.
There’s some wisdom to be found in “eating like a two-year-old” — kids eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. They don’t judge themselves over portion sizes or secretly obsess over cravings. Listening to these body signals is a good lesson for parents, too.
Another good habit to develop is regular meal planning. Spending some time to plan your family’s meals for the week can mean big savings in mental and physical energy at the end of a workday when those resources are scarce. You’ll already know what’s for dinner instead of stressing about it during afternoon nap time or on the commute home.
You can take meal planning one step farther by preparing healthy foods in batches for use during the week — like chopping tomatoes on Sunday for Monday’s salad and Tuesday’s pasta sauce.
Meal planning also streamlines your grocery shopping — an organized list cuts down on mindlessly wandering grocery aisles where you’re at the mercy of brightly colored boxes of sugary cereals and cookies. Meal planning also reduces mid-week impulse trips to the store and at-your-wits-end take-out orders.
Because we snack on what’s close at hand, you can fill your kitchen with healthy snacks like fresh fruits and vegetables. Better yet, make sure these tasty treats are washed and cut and ready to go. Keep apples, bananas, and other fruits on the kitchen counter, and position veggies like peppers, carrots, and cucumbers toward the front of the refrigerator so you’ll see them first thing before you start hunger-rummaging.
Since research shows that having unhealthy foods within reach is associated with increased body weight and even more addictive eating, keeping processed foods and sweets out of the kitchen just makes sense.
“If sodas, chips, and cookies aren’t in the cupboard there is no choice about eating healthier,” says Malinda Carlson of Fine Parent. Indulgent treats aren’t entirely off the table, but these can be saved for special occasions instead.
And who says healthy eating can’t be fun? Everyone in the family can benefit from “eating the rainbow” every day by choosing at least one food from every color for a balanced and nutrition-packed diet. This practice also encourages more awareness of what’s on your plate, and what’s going into your mouth, throughout the day.
A good way to encourage more adventurous eating is to experiment with presentation. How about fruit snacks on a stick? Want to try rice ball rabbits (rice shaped into a ball and decorated with veggie “faces”)? Other options include letting kids pick out a new fruit or vegetable to try each week — so they’re participating in family meal planning — and having kids help in the garden, since they’re more likely to be interested in eating something they helped grow themselves.
Blended foods — like sauces, pureed soups, and fruit smoothies — are a convenient way to sneak in some extra nutrition if you or your kids are picky eaters. For example, Jamie Oliver’s “Full of Veg” Tomato Sauce includes zucchini and even butternut squash blended into tomatoes and onions.
Kids can also be encouraged to eat those healthy dinners — and try new foods — by helping with meal preparation. Bonus: Your kids might like helping in the kitchen so much that you never have to peel another potato.
And don’t forget exercise! The family that moves together loses together? Okay, so you might need a better slogan for fun family fitness, but activities like walking, cycling, and jogging that increase your heart rate are great calorie burners, improve heart health, and reduce the risk of cancer and diabetes.
“By making time to work out, your children see — not just hear — how important it is to take care of yourself and make exercise a part of your daily life.”
So go for neighborhood strolls. Play hide and seek as a family, or try a yoga video together. You can even sign everybody up for a local walk-a-thon to raise money for a cause your family cares about.
“By making time to work out, your children see — not just hear — how important it is to take care of yourself and make exercise a part of your daily life,” says Kleiner for Beachbody on Demand.
While parenting can take a toll — and while neither your body nor your lifestyle may be the same — families can absolutely pull together to help keep each other healthy and fit.