OOPS! I've committed one of the cardinal sins of good nutrition. Me, a nutritionist and dietitian!
I'm not talking about eating chocolate, pizza, and hot chips (all of which I eat, and enjoy, on occasion. Well, daily for the chocolate.)
I'm not talking about subjecting everyone around you to listening to your endless monologue about the virtues of your latest cleanse/detox/dietary philosophy - what I call dietary preaching. (Yes, this is a cardinal sin!)
I'm talking about something surreptitious, something stealthy, that silently sneaks in unnoticed through the back door when life gets busy, and defies all our good nutritional sense.
I'm talking about under eating.
my under eating confession
April has been a hectic month of beginnings and endings, upheaval, and mad deadlines. Being the primary caretaker for our 6-month old boy is a full time job in itself. Add to that, part-time naturopathy studies, administrative and clinical work for my business, and seemingly endless laundry, and you can see where eating regular meals might be squeezed out - even for someone who should know better.
Up until recently (YESTERDAY), on some days I wouldn't make time to eat a substantial breakfast until 12:30pm, after a morning of uni and around 90 minutes of commuting. On work days things were slightly less hectic but I'd started getting into the habit of just nibbling on a few nuts or an apple before going to work, instead of having a proper breakfast.
I'd then get home just in time for a quick baby handover with hubby as he rushed out the door to go to work or uni, leaving me with breastfeeding, changing, entertaining, and putting baby to sleep. Lunch just didn't happen or if it did, it was around 3:30pm, and dinner might not get to the table until after 9pm if hubby was working late and wasn't there to cook.
This isn't good for anyone, let alone a breastfeeding mother.
By the way, don't be fooled by my Instagram account, which only shows the top 1% of eventful moments my life. Although I've tried my best to limit styled yoga pose photos and the like, the shots of fun family times at the beach and bushwalking are few and far between at the moment. My respite is art and that's something that only happens when Archie is asleep or happily (and very temporarily) occupied. Lately I've spent far more time dealing with 1am poo explosions all over the bed, and fighting with my partner over who is doing it toughest. Although I could take Instagram shots at times like these, I'm hardly in the mood for it.
The effects of under eating
Of all people, I thought I'd be the last to neglect eating regular, substantial, healthy meals. But it can happen to anyone.
There are lots of reasons women (and men) under eat calories, carbs, or both. Here are just a few:
- You're a parent
- Work is insanely hectic
- Commuting takes hours each day
- Study / family / training takes up all of your spare time
- You're dieting or have disordered eating patterns (diagnosed or not)
- You're not "weight loss dieting" but you are clean/paleo/low carb - and you're going too hard
- You're over exercising, or not eating enough to meet your activity requirements
Whatever your reason is for under eating, there is a price to pay for under nourishing your body in both the short and long term.
In the short term, haphazard eating and missing meals means you end up running on very low blood sugars. This amps up fatigue, and predisposes you to low blood sugar symptoms like headaches and dizziness. And it makes you hell to be around (just ask my partner).
In the long term, it puts you at risk of a bunch of diseases. Under eating wreaks havoc with your HPA (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal) axis, i.e. it burns your adrenals to a crisp. It increases your risk of hypothyroidism, which only worsens the fatigue picture. It ages you. It disrupts your menstrual cycle (in women) and reduces fertility (men and women).
Under eating shuts you off from your body's natural hunger and fullness cues, making it harder to eat intuitively, and leading to binge eating. This, chronically taxed adrenals, and/or an under active thyroid, can all lead to weight gain above your most healthy, comfortable weight.
I am constantly telling my clients to eat regular, well-balanced meals to keep their energy levels in check. So I feel just a little hypocritical now that I see what I have been doing to myself for the past few weeks!
u.m.a (under-eating mamas anonymous)
I'm a non-diet practitioner and avid anti-diet person, but to illustrate things clearly let's for a moment talk in terms of calories. We all know that pregnant women need more calories than non-pregnant women (they're growing a human, plus all the extra manufacturing equipment - placenta, milk-producing breast tissue, etc).
Whilst the average non-active woman needs approximately 2200 calories per day (with some give for genetic factors, environmental differences etc), pregnant women need about 300 additional calories (depending on which trimester you're in - this can be up to 450 calories in the third trimester), which is equivalent to an extra sandwich and a glass of milk - dairy-free or otherwise. And if you're a first-time mama, eating more is generally easy and enjoyable, except for the times when you're experiencing morning sickness.
What a lot of people forget is that breastfeeding mothers have even higher requirements than pregnant women. Women who exclusively breastfeed burn an average of 500 additional calories per day, which is equivalent to the energy expended in a 2-hour walk, or one hour of intense exercise at a gym.
As Dr. Siri Kjos, an obstetrician-gynaecologist of over 20 years, says, “It’s like having a gym on your chest!”
This boosts a breastfeeding mama's requirements for energy up to around 2700 calories a day, which may mean a whole extra meal for some women! These figures may come as a shock to women who are accustomed to a restrictive dieter's intake of 1200 - 1500 calories a day (or to those poor souls on the 800-calorie HCG diet. Shudder).
For a woman following her natural hunger cues, reaching these increased requirements is pretty effortless - there is no need to meticulously calorie count and calculate your intake! But throw in a bunch of distractions, obligations and the general chaos caused by our busy lifestyles - which are made drastically busier by the arrival of a new baby - and those hunger cues tend to get ignored, suppressed and eventually, lost.
carbs - a breastfeeding mum's friend
Active, paleo mamas, listen up. A breastfeeding mama needs anywhere from 30 - 50% of her energy intake to come from carbohydrates. If we go with a typical, somewhat active breastfeeding mother's requirements of 2800 calories a day, this translates to around 1200 calories coming from carbs, which is equivalent to around 6 (yes, SIX!) cups of white rice a day. That means eating one and a half cups of starchy foods at every meal, if you have four meals a day.
Being a real food dietitian I recommend you eat more nutrient dense, low GI carbohydrates than white rice alone - sweet potatoes, pumpkin, brown rice, quinoa, bananas, and the like, with plenty of good fats. You may aim towards the lower carbohydrate intake of 30% if you're insulin resistant, and closer to the higher 50% of total energy intake if you're very active. But carbohydrates are hell important, and cutting them out after you've had a baby (a la Beyonce or Kim Kardashian) is not conducive to healthy breastfeeding. Cutting them out in general is not a good idea, either.
Trying to lose Baby weight? It can wait.
Stress can suppress your appetite, leading you to eat less than you actually need.
Add to that the anxiety many mothers feel over losing baby weight as fast as possible and that stress multiplies. Nowadays I see so many mamas eating a low-carb, or paleo diet, to lose weight gained during pregnancy. But if you do this and you're even more likely to miss out on the carbohydrates you need to produce breastmilk, which requires a significant amount of glucose.
This reduces the amount of breast milk you can make, which is bad news for your baby and for you.
Whether or not you're a breastfeeding mother, under eating calories and under eating carbohydrates for a significant length of time will create blood sugar imbalances and stress your HPA axis.
If you are a mum and restricting in order to lose baby weight, I have one word for you: STOP. This is not the time to restrict your energy intake to accelerate weight loss, despite what Beyonce and Kim Kardashian did.
Your priority is not to lose weight - it is to recover and bond with your baby, to tune into your natural body cues of hunger and fullness, and if you can breastfeed, to produce top quality milk for your baby. Your body will naturally settle at its most comfortable and healthy weight for this period in your life.
And yes, that may mean you carry a little extra weight while you're breastfeeding, contrary to those rumours of "breastfeeding just burns the fat off!". Whilst this does apply to some mothers, it's not a universal law. I certainly have found that I was at my lowest weight just after giving birth, and have since put on a few kilos of milk-making goodness. You are feeding another human directly from your body, FFS. What's another few kilos for the health and awesome immune-function of your baby? Nothing, that's what.
Over the past few weeks, uni assessment has reached an all time high, clients have been making more bookings, and Archie has been sick. So eating regularly got edged out and I very much doubt I was getting 3000 calories a day.
I noticed that I've had less energy. My milk production has decreased somewhat, so Archie has been feeding more frequently to push supply up again. Prior to this chaotic month I was effortlessly donating my excess breast milk to another baby, but this month I've had next to none to spare. All signs that I need to eat more yummy, nutrient-dense meals, and work less!
What to do if you're under eating?
If you're under eating because your workload is hectic, you spend hours each day commuting, your relationships are rocky, your baby needs you 24/7 and you have little to no help, or you need to finish assignments, those are not good enough reasons to under nourish yourself. That might sound harsh, but when will it end? Something has to give, because you can't keep doing this to your body without paying a price. And a high one at that.
It's time to give yourself permission to eat properly.
So my questions to you are, what do you need to give up or cut back on in order to fit good nutrition into your life? How can you simplify your life to make room for that which really matters - your health and wellbeing?
Personally, I'll be drastically reducing my uni hours next semester, and from now on I'll be far more strict with clinic hours. Yes, that means that I won't get my degree finished as quickly. It means some clients who are not willing to go on my waiting list for weeks at a time will need to find another health practitioner. But supporting my health by eating regular healthy meals and being there for my baby are what matter most right now.
In the last few days I've been eating more. I've taken time off work, and made time for more regular meals and more carbs. And guess what? I feel better already. I felt better the moment I sat down to a big plate of salmon and avocado salad and mixed sweet and creamy dutch potato wedges for lunch!