Why Young Mothers Put On the Pounds

In an April 11 article published online by the American Academy of  Pediatrics, results of a research project showed that young mothers (average age 25)consume more sugar-sweetened beverages and saturated fat than women in the same age group without children, resulting in higher BMIs. And while the authors said these women may have had higher BMIs simply because they recently gave birth, they couldn’t explain why their eating habits were less healthy than women without children.

I can help them out.

I had my first child at age 26, and even after the rigorous discipline required to work my way through college and live as a missionary in Japan while learning a new language, motherhood kicked my hiney. For mothers, trying to prepare healthy meals with any sense of regularity and actually sitting down to eat them like a normal human being can feel like a herculean task when you have a home full of little people. Especially if one of those little people is an infant. Why?

  1. Lack of sleep. I can’t speak for the other mothers of the world, but when I’m tired, I eat junk. Not only because the thought of washing and cutting up a bunch of veggies for a salad sounds about as appealing as changing another poopy diaper, but because my body is craving energy and knows the easy way to get it: sugar. I’ve never been a big soda drinker (I like my sugar in the form of “healthy” Power Bars), but I know more than one sleep-deprived mom who can’t get going in the morning without a big caffeinated soda. I can’t help but wonder if that explains the higher intake of sugar-sweetened beverages.
  2. Lack of structure and routine. Especially for mothers of infants, everyday life loses all sense of structure and routine. Gone are the days of lunch breaks and specified meal times. Snacking and grazing become the primary means of dining, and who’s keeping track of what’s being eaten?
  3. Eating at home. I know, I know. Eating out is supposed to be where everyone gets in trouble, but believe me, when you’re home all day, feeling exhausted after another sleepless night, and the only person making food for you is that haggard looking woman in the mirror, you’re lucky to get the leftover PB&J crusts that one of the older kids left behind. If mothers had the luxury of going down to the salad bar at the office cafeteria or to a nearby Subway during their lunch break, healthy eating would be infinitely easier. (I’d love to see this same study done comparing working mothers to stay-at-home mothers.)
  4. Serving yourself last. Speaking of PB&J crusts, when was the last time you sat down and actually ate a meal with your children? Even if you make family dinner a priority, the other meals of the day often happen in a much more ad hoc way, mom feeding everyone else before eating herself. Whether you’re sitting down to nurse or bottle feed around the clock, gearing up for the time intensive job of feeding an older baby in a highchair, or making small meals and snacks for pre-schoolers every few hours, serving yourself last is the order of the day, right?

So what’s a mother to do? Looking at this four point list makes me want to go dig through my secret snack cupboard and hide in a corner. But there’s hope. Part of our core curriculum at Power of Moms is “Taking Care of the Person Inside the Mom,” and that includes taking care of yourself physically.

In one of our articles titled, “Mommy is a Person,” April Perry talks about the basic activities every person, including mothers, can expect to enjoy. Here’s the part that relates to eating:

“The first time I remember wondering where ‘April’ had gone was during lunch one afternoon when I sat down with my three young children to eat a sandwich. Before I had even gotten past the crust, someone wanted a refill of milk, another needed a side of cheese, and a third wanted the sandwich opened, not folded. You’ve been there, right? I didn’t like the frustration I felt, so the next time we all sat down to eat, I did things a little differently. After serving everyone their food (and a napkin and drink and utensils), I asked, ‘Does everyone have everything they need? I’d like you to tell me right now because I am going to sit down and eat my food. I’m not getting up again until I’m done because Mommy is a person. Let’s say that all together.  Mommy. . .is . . .a . . .person. That’s right. I get to eat, too. Everyone is all set? Great!’

It took a few days of training before my children stopped asking for things mid-meal, but it actually worked! Sometimes I have to stifle a giggle at the dinner table because I’m deliriously excited to actually eat a whole plate of food in one sitting. Now my son will say, ‘Mom, can I have another roll with jelly…when you’re done eating?’ I want to kiss him on his head and say, ‘Bless you, child!’”

And you, Mom, are a person too. Thinking of yourself as a person who is allowed to enjoy something as basic as eating is the first step to improving your diet.

So in the name of being proactive, here are four points to counter balance the ones listed above for those times you feel you’re about to go under with a bag ofpotato chips and a Dr. Pepper.

  1. Get more sleep. You’re laughing, right? But thinking of yourself as a person who deserves rest and not the personal slave of every other individual in your home is the bedrock for all other personal growth. Naps aren’t just for babies, and taking them doesn’t mean you’re neglectful or wimpy. Whether you need to use the electronic babysitter (TV) for a bit or ask a friend or relative to give you some time, being well rested is the first key to a healthier you. (Still skeptical? Read this other article by April titled, “Mommy’s Naptime 101.”)
  2. Get back to set mealtimes. Set a timer if you need help sticking to a schedule. Committing to specific times for meals and snacks (within reason) will help you avoid grazing on junk food all day and overeating from getting too hungry. Trying to eat together in a more structured way as a family will also help everyone eat healthier.
  3. Eat more prepared foods. You read that right, but I’m not talking about the processed kind. Splurge on pre-cut fruits and veggies, bagged salads, and microwave steamed frozen veggies if you know it will help you eat more of the good stuff.
  4. Serve yourself first. Obviously this doesn’t work if you’re having a sit-down meal together as a family, but if you know you aren’t going to sit and eat with your baby or small children at other times in the day, go ahead and feed yourself before you get too famished, the baby is screaming to be fed, or the older kids are begging for snacks. (Because who hasn’t ended up snacking on one too many handfuls of goldfish after getting them out “for the kids?”)

None of this is as easy as it sounds, and no one is doing it perfectly, but we can all recognize the importance of trying to make it work. Being in control of what goes in your mouth by eating deliberately has a surprising effect on how deliberately you do just about everything else, and being a deliberate mother is what we’re all about. Now get out there and have something to eat!

QUESTION: What obstacles prevent you from eating healthier?

CHALLENGE: Try one of the above suggestions this week!

Originally published on April 28, 2011.