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How Diet Culture is Negatively Impacting Pregnancy Health

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Diet culture, including the weight loss industry, and social media have created a perfect storm for developing a negative self-body image. In our modern world filled with instant and constant access to information via social media, altered self-esteem is common among adolescents- particularly young women.

Sadly, the deeply instilled beliefs many young women acquire can exacerbate when the prospect of motherhood comes into the picture. From getting pregnant to being pregnant and recovering postpartum- diet culture and negative self-image have no place in motherhood.

Unrealistic ideals have significant repercussions for women in their child-rearing years hoping to have their own kids- leading to effects on body image, fertility, mental health, and postpartum recovery. This article will explore the ugly side of these industries that have infiltrated people’s minds worldwide, giving an unideal image of what women should look like.

The Concerning Connection Between Diet Culture and Pregnancy

When discussing diet norms with Alex Caspero, MA, RD, Registered Dietitian at Delish Knowledge and author of The Predominantly Plant-Based Pregnancy Guide, she agreed that

Diet culture greatly influences a woman’s body image regarding pregnancy and postpartum recovery.

For many women, pregnancy weight gain can lead to anxiety, depression, and altered eating habits, negatively affecting their mental and physical health.

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Weight Gain During Pregnancy is Impossible to Predict

Alex highlights that there is pressure to look a certain way while pregnant, and it’s considered a compliment to tell a woman that she is “all baby” or “can’t even tell she’s pregnant.”

Unfortunately, these comments can lead to a negative identity for women who gain more weight. However, weight gain is likely due to genetic disposition and is not linked to the mom’s or baby’s overall health.

The Institute of Medicine recommends that women gain 10-40 pounds during pregnancy (depending on their pre-pregnancy weight). Gaining too much or too little weight can be a problem. For example, not gaining enough weight can increase the baby’s risk of being born prematurely or being small for gestational age.

Pregnancy Weight Gain and Postpartum Recovery

Registered dietician, Brenna Thompson with CityPT, agrees wholeheartedly that diet culture should not be a part of pregnancy. And it’s not just the idea of eating less (food, carbs, fat, meat, etc.); it’s the social media, magazine, and TV images of moms who seem to transform their bodies back to their pre-baby shape in record time.

Brenna says, “For most women, it’s unrealistic to think that our bodies will look the same in a few weeks or even just a few months. And let’s be clear; they probably won’t ever look quite the same, which is normal.”

The Ugly Truth About Diet Culture and Pregnancy 

Restricting nourishing calories in an attempt to achieve an idealized body shape or weight has effects women wanting children in four ways:

1. Infertility

Brenna mentions that women who strive to be thin or extra fit risk their fertility and ability to get pregnant.

“Even if they are menstruating, they may not always be ovulating. A lack of total calories or carbs, fats, or protein can make it difficult for a woman to conceive or maintain a pregnancy due to low thyroid function, poor egg quality, or low estrogen and progesterone levels.”

2. Struggling with Body Image During Pregnancy

Women with insecurities and self-esteem issues must face these anxieties head-on during pregnancy. Pregnancy may cause undue stress over the weight they will gain and their body’s changes.

3. Expectations for Postpartum Recovery

Our culture is seemingly obsessed with women that bounce back after birth. This expectation can lead to disordered eating postpartum when a woman should be focusing on nourishing their body and bonding with their baby.

Alex recalls postpartum clients she’s worked with that expect to return to their pre-pregnancy by the time they return to work (around 12 weeks). 

“This expectation is not only incredibly stressful, but it’s also potentially harmful. Instead, I urge women to focus on gentle recovery; it’s not a race to see when you can fit into your pre-pregnancy jeans– and the reality that you may never be able to fit into them again.” 

It can be challenging for some women to accept. Still, Alex reminds her clients that sustaining and giving life is incredible.

4. Establishing a Milk Supply

Nursing moms need even more calories than during pregnancy (the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends 300 to 400 extra calories daily). Breastfeeding is a full-time job that shouldn’t involve restriction, especially carbs, as this can affect supply.

Both Brenna and Alex recommend that breastfeeding moms focus on nourishing whole foods that will give them the high-quality energy source they need while they recover from birth. 

Overall, nursing moms should never restrict their calories to lose weight. Most will naturally lose some or all of it during the first six months when they focus on their health over weight loss.

What Can Be Done?

Fortunately, there are some steps women can take to stay focused on the positive aspects of pregnancy and motherhood rather than fixating on how they will look in their jeans or swimsuit.

Education is Empowerment

Women need realistic expectations about their body image and what to expect during (and after) pregnancy. Talking to a doctor, dietician, health coach, or women’s health physical therapist about a proper diet and other lifestyle habits for pregnancy can help.

Acceptance and Mindfulness

The body is an incredible vessel that adapts to changes during pregnancy and postpartum. Women can be in awe of this unique experience, understanding that their body has done something amazing and, in time, will settle into their new shape.

Alex also recommends that her clients keep a gratitude journal if they want help actively reshaping their mindset.

Focus on Nourishing Over Restricting

Strict food or calorie restriction is rarely good for a healthy lifestyle. Instead, women should focus on nourishing the body guilt free with everything it needs to thrive. It’ll boost their hormone levels, mental health, and baby’s health and help manage symptoms like pregnancy nausea.

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Embracing a Healthy Mindset

Diet culture has no place in pregnancy and motherhood- yet it tries its best to get into women’s minds at a young age, making them feel insecure about their bodies and weight.

For any woman looking to make a change, it all starts with one step at a time. Whether you’re pregnant or not, health coach Karen with Seasonal Cravings recommends women get rid of the scale, diet cookbooks, and magazines. In today’s world, this should also include unfollowing social media accounts promoting unhealthy body ideals or making them feel bad about their bodies.

Karen also says it’s important to acknowledge insecurity or anxiety but not let them take control. Women often feel guilty for wanting to look their best, which can lead to unrealistic expectations and disordered eating- perpetuating the issue.

Remember, feeling beautiful doesn’t come from a specific size or shape but from within.

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