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The Renewed Obsession With Weight Gain During Pregnancy

By ceridwen |

Has all the fun been take out of eating during pregnancy?

“My doctor told me no more carbs and no more candy in the afternoons.”

The women telling me this is 7 months pregnant, and she’s gained 40 pounds. She looks great. She continues, “But I don’t even eat candy in the afternoon.” She is supposed to gain about 25-35 pounds in total. She’s still got two months to go.

I remember the good old days back in 2004 when a 50 pound weight gain would pass muster. Sure, there were weigh-ins and doctors and midwives would offer regular advice about staying active and eating well–and What To Expect would admonish you to eat five servings of leafy greens a day–but there was still a kind of freedom associated with food during pregnancy. You could forget the damn scale for a year and follow your appetites with actual, gasp, joy.

I recall a pregnant friend saying something along the lines of, “It’s awesome, I can eat like a boy. It turns out when you take the guilt out, you actually don’t eat cheesecake from 7am onwards.”

I know a formerly anorexic woman who found her pregnancy to be life-altering– she had never in her life looked at a menu and just thought, “What do I want?” It turned out that when she asked herself that question the answer was usually “a good meal.” Not a binge. Not a purge. Not a guilty pleasure. Not the “right thing to eat,” or the “wrong thing to eat.”  It reminds me of the studies where they give patients total control of their pain medications with a clicker and they end up using less medication than the hospital would have administered.

But it seems the crackdown on weight gain is back in full force, and we’re being forced– like we are in so many other phases of our female lives– to see meals as portions, not pleasure. And I have to wonder if this is going to help or hurt us?

The women in my childbirth classes, like the one I quoted above, tell me of regular (sometimes stern) conversations with care-providers about keeping the numbers down. Sure, we’re not back to the 1950s when women were literally given speed to control weight, but, pregnancy is losing it’s special status as a time to eat like “a boy.”

In a great piece today over at Jezebel, Tracy Moore writes about  “pulling a deuce” (aka hitting the 200 lb mark) in her pregnancy:

“By the final week of pregnancy, I was powerless to stop the pile-on. I dodged gestational diabetes, or any single pregnancy complication for that matter, in spite of my cavalier food forking. So I wasn’t fazed when at my last checkup, I clocked in at 208. “Call off the dogs, already!” I cried out to the pregnancy weight-gain warlocks.
But hey — wasn’t this supposed to be “my time” where I got whatever I wanted and ate whatever I craved and lived it up and everyone was beholden to my weirdest whims and desires? Or am I confusing pregnancy with a wedding day?

Then I realized that, for the first time, I got it. I truly understood the power food holds over anyone who’s struggled with it. For me, the eating had felt so unimaginably good. It had felt like a warm blanket of comfort during 9 months of discomfort. It was what had kept me going as I deprived myself of every other vice that pregnancy refused me.”

From what I can tell, the renewed interest in keeping weight down came around the same time as a bunch of studies and articles about the dangers of obesity in pregnancy– there are increased risks for the pregnancy, birth, mom and baby’s future health. It’s an important health concern– everyone from high-risk OBs to the crunchiest midwives out there want you to realize that you (and your baby) are what you eat.

But what I find most distressing about the new crackdown on weight-gain is this– and Ms. Moore points this out in her piece, too–how we eat and stack on pounds during pregnancy is so individual. Some women find they eat constantly and gain a mere 25 pounds. Others watch their portions and get gestational diabetes or gain weight rapidly.

Sure, in general the more you eat and the more sedentary your life is, the more you gain. But in pregnancy, and certainly during breastfeeding, there seem to be other, highly individual, metabolic forces at work. About half of breastfeeding women lose weight almost instantaneously and need to make a conscious effort to get the extra calories. The other half cling to extra pounds until weaning.

Then there are the idiosyncratic food aversions. (I found it nearly impossible to eat anything that wasn’t a white carb during one of my pregnancies. ) And how about the endless food safety recommendations? A pregnant Australian I met the other day told me there’s concern in her country about pregnant women eating way too many processed foods out of a fear of over-the-counter salads and cold meats. (Australia rivals America when it comes to obesity stats.)

Now getting back to my earlier point of the liberated anorexic finding peace of mind and appetite in pregnancy. There’s the flipside: I know svelte women who found that suddenly, during pregnancy, cravings, exhaustion, an unforgiving metabolism led to immediate and stubborn weight gain. In these situations, menu-reading does not feel freeing at all, but complicated and hostile. There are also women with eating disorders who become even more obsessive during pregnancy, which can be very dangerous.

I suppose my point here– or rather my question– is: Can health recommendations about diet and weight ever convey the nuance such topics deserve?

Maybe not. Maybe public service announcements will always be reductive and unsubtle and play on our worst fears. And that’s necessary.

But maybe there’s a way, as women and mothers and bloggers and care-providers, we can open up our conversation a little and talk about nutrition during pregnancy in a way that emphasizes the differences between women.  Just last week there was news of a study showing that better body image was associated weight loss. It sounds like putting the cart before the horse, but it makes sense to me. Finding a positive way to think about our own particular (hungry, round, ravenous, picky) pregnant bodies, may shape the way we treat them.

What has your experience been when it comes to monitoring and learning about food and pregnancy? Punishing? Or nourishing?

Big baby, bigger mom? The link between weight gain and big babies

More on Babble

About ceridwen



Ceridwen Morris is a writer, mother, and certified childbirth educator. She is the author of several books and screenplays, including (Three Rivers; 2007). She serves on the board of The Childbirth Education Association of Metropolitan New York and teaches at Tribeca Parenting in New York City. Read bio and latest posts → Read Ceridwen's latest posts →

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25 thoughts on “The Renewed Obsession With Weight Gain During Pregnancy

  1. Sara says:

    I am rather jealous of you women who so enjoy eating during pregnancy. At first I just wasn’t very hungry. Morning sickness killed any large appetite I might have had, and it never returned. Then, when the baby got bigger, then fact that I was carrying very high meant that I had constant indigestion, reflux, all that fun stuff. So I was able to eat even less. I’m just a few weeks away from giving birth, and I’m struggling to maintain a 10 pound gain, on a pretty average weight body. It is nice, though, in that way that you wrote about – every day, I get to think ‘what exactly would I like to eat today?’. And then I eat it, and the more the better. I am desperately eager for a return to truly enjoying food and fullness, though.

  2. Megan says:

    I don’t understand why the weight gain is the same range for every woman. I’m 6 ft tall and have gained 50 pounds. Luckily, I have a great midwife who isn’t on my case about it. I don’t look heavy at all and my baby is fine and ready to join us any day now, so who cares if I gained 10 pounds more than the average woman who is 6 inches shorter than me!?!

  3. Bunnytwenty says:

    Oh hey, and yet Babble posted a piece a few days (weeks?) ago calling moms who try not to gain weight during pregnancy vain and anorexic. Make up your damn minds! Is there anything correct that a woman can do in pregnancy? anything? ever?

  4. ceridwen says:

    Megan- Of course height is such an obvious reason not to generalize weight gain, I missed it. Thanks! And Sara– Yeah, food can be repulsive during pregnancy, thank you for reminding me. Bunnytwenty– I totally hear you. Our culture picks on pregnant women to the point where it all seems lose-lose. I didn’t see that weight loss piece and tried to convey here that the obsession with weight is not originating from the women but from the care-providers and health advice. In fact, my point is that pregnancy comes in many different sizes, so our generalizing–whther to eat more or less– is useless and even harmful.

  5. Lynn says:

    You are so right – health recommendations weight sometimes cannot convey the nuances. Even more troublesome is that they cause is to constantly compare ourselves to each other. I was also told to cut out carbs and sugar after gaining only 27 lbs. at my 26 week appointment. I’m starting to feel like livestock that is constantly monitored, weighed, pinched and poked.

  6. SarahB says:

    Such a good piece! I’ve found my weight gain and changing appetites such a constant source of fascination. As someone who’s been naturally skinny for most of my life, it’s been surprising to see my body gain weight so rapidly. I craved kale hard-core for most of second trimester, along with lots of fruit. It seemed like I was eating constantly for awhile there. And, yes, it occurred to me that this must be what it’s like to be a teenage boy, wanting food all the time and being able to eat it with abandon.

    I made it a point not to track my weight other than the weigh-ins at my OB’s office. I figure the weight gain is largely outside my control and that my body will take what it needs from my mostly healthy diet.

  7. Lorette Lavine says:

    In the mid and late 70′s it was common for ob-gyn to recommend a 25 to 30 lb. weight gain. I worked in OB at that time and this seemed like a reasonable amount of weight to gain.
    I am not sure what more of a weight gain does for mom or baby…what I do know is that healthy eating should be the concern during pregnancy. Gaining too much weight is not good and not gaining enough is not good either.
    If a woman has diabetes or gestational diabetes diet is even more important to mom and baby’s overall health.
    There is a problem here in the US with obesity so I think that our concern with weight and healthy eating is appropriate.
    Healthy eating habits should not go out the window when a woman is pregnant for her sake and for the baby.

  8. Kris says:

    I agree that there’s a strong, sort of blind, generic emphasis on weight gain. My midwife scolded me to cut carbs around week 35 or so, when I’d had a perfectly healthy pregnancy so far and was right on track to gain 35 pounds total, as recommended for my size. A friend who’s just a few weeks behind me was admonished for gaining 6 pounds in a month instead of the recommended 4, and then just a few weeks later had to have an extra ultrasound because she was carrying so small. We both ended up feeling neurotic and guilty about our habits, which were just fine – as if pregnant women don’t have enough to obsess about. What good does that do anyone?

  9. Heather Sellers says:

    With my first pregnancy I did the whole “eating for two” and gained over 50 lbs. By the end I felt like a whale. I’m 5 ft, so a 50 lb weight gain was obvious on my petite frame. This pregnancy, I’ve only gained 20 lbs so far, with 3 weeks left. I look good and feel even better (minus constant sciatica pain.) I’ve been proud of my weight gain this time because I know it will mostly melt off post birth, unlike the first time that took almost a year to take off (and I did breastfeed my first). If I have a craving this time for something unhealthy, like chocolate pie or onion rings, then I try to eat a healthy snack before I give in to the craving. That way I satisfy the craving, but without the guilt of packing on the lbs. Also, my goal is to VBAC this time, and I know the less weight I put on extra to the baby will be better for me and my son, i.e. fewer complications.

  10. Bunnytwenty says:

    Ceridwen, I agree… but while I think your piece on the topic is excellent, it bothers me that it’s posted on a site that engages in exactly the kind of fearmongering and guilt-tripping that your piece is pitted against. I’m glad that you’re not contributing to the problem, but perhaps noting some of these editorial issues to the folks in charge at this site might do some good as well? I mean, I know that page-views are the most important thing on the business end, and that stories that scare moms get people clicking, but your readers don’t benefit from contradictory advice and “you’re going to ruin your baby forever by eating ice cream!” stories.

  11. Anna says:

    How to lose weight after having a baby was shown on british televison and the obesity drug makers hide the story, this was shown on Philadelphia News

    see here on Philly News

  12. Jessica says:

    Oh, Ceridwen, I wish you would blog more on here. The Babble Being Pregnant site is a liiiiiiitle light on content, and I so enjoy your posts. I am currently 40+ weeks pregnant with my first, and have gained about 40 pounds. And, like much of the whole diet/exercise/weight conversation in America, I wish people would talk more about health, and less about size/numbers. I think you’re entirely right that the nuance is being lost when doctors quote 25-35 pounds across the board, and yet, in 9 months of fairly conventional obstetric care, not ONCE has a a doctor or CNM asked me what my diet is like. You know, like the actual stuff I’m putting into my body. NOT ONCE. I find that to be just about as pathetic as possible. I mean, I could be eating ho-hos and ding-dongs all day, and as long as I only gain 30 pounds, everything is A-OK? But I eat a healthy variety of whole, nutritious food (plus more than my fair share of ice cream because, hello, I am pregnant after all, I should be enjoying SOMETHING), and I get commentary from the OB on my weight for coming in about 5 pounds above what he thinks is “ideal” without any inquiry into what I’m actually eating? What is up with that? It’s a sad state of affairs, but not dissimilar to a lot of “healthcare” in America.

  13. Laura says:

    I think it’s really important to find a doctor that understands you, body types, etc. My friend has a doctor that scolded her for grabbing a sucker from his candy dish during one of her prenatal appointments! He also constantly told her she needed to “slow down” her weight gain. Thing is, she’s 6 ft. tall and obviously, as Megan pointed out, is going to gain more weight than other women. I’m very grateful for my doctor, as she encouraged me to go with what I craved, and also told me to try to eat a variety of foods – there can be a balance. She knows my history with disordered eating, and I think she understands that her encouragement, even if I gain more than the “average woman,” can go a long way to help me and my baby.

    I also think that seeing celebrities gain so little and lose so much so fast is not realistic and women shouldn’t look to that as “normal” or “expected.” We are all different and are all going to expericing weight gain or loss differently with pregnancy.

  14. Voice Of Reason says:

    My babies were born in England and my midwives didn’t weigh me throughout either of my pregnancies. If I remember correctly, they said it was because there was far too much margin for error for it to be taken seriously.

    They had many other ways of monitoring the health and wellbeing of my babies and me and I think the general idea was that continually weighing mums-to-be usually led to mums being overly concerned with their weight, with little/no other (genuinely beneficial) outcome.

    As Laura (above) said, “We are all different and are all going to experiencing weight gain or loss differently with pregnancy.” That makes sense to me.

  15. samantha joseph says:

    Prenatal yoga workouts help a lot during pregnancy and also after it.It not only checks weight after child-birth but also assist in healthy pregnancy and smoother delivery.

  16. Paulina says:

    My doctor has never once asked about my diet either, which I find very strange. At my first weigh-in back in late January, I was bundled up in a winter coat and heavy boots and asked if I should remove them before stepping on the scale and the nurse said not to. Her attitude was that it didn’t really matter. So my initial weigh-in was about 7lbs more than my actual weight. I stopped tracking my weight about a month ago too because I was constantly worrying that I gained too much too soon, but my doctor didn’t seem concerned at all. I’m 30 weeks and have gained about 30 pounds so far. I also think that during my first trimester, I was much more concerned about eating healthy and following the ‘What-to-Expect’ diet recommendations. As I’ve gotten further along, I’m more likely to have a (gasp) deli sandwich for lunch or something ‘bad’ here or there.

  17. sarah james says:

    Fantastic article, great to see someone taking it to the pregnancy weigh in dictators. Antenatal visits should be a nurturing experience, not ‘Well who’s been a naughty girl this week?’ Like the lady who had her baby’s in England said, there are so many other ways you can monitor a pregnant woman’s health without having to put her through the often demeaning experience of standing on the scales. A woman spends her life being harassed by the size of her bum and the dimples on her thighs, pregnancy should be a time for a woman to finally come to terms with her body, to embrace her body and live in awe of what it is able to do. Thanks again for a great article.

  18. Stefany T says:

    I started my pregnancy as a plus-size mom. Knowing that, I am truly obsessed with not gaining too much weight. I am in my 28th week and have gained about 5 or 6 pounds and am worried about it. Being told and knowing that I am already overweight makes it that much harder to accept gaining weight through pregnancy. In all honesty, I worry constantly that I am not eating enough and I have many food aversions but I believe the root of the problem is my physician and nurses being “concerned” about the amount of weight I gain.

  19. Leah says:

    I love this piece! As a certified personal trainer and yoga instructor who is also pregnant, I’ve have felt a special urging to have as fit a pregnancy as possible. Yet, it is also my mission to empower women I work with to listen to their bodies and TRUST themselves. Simply eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full is the key, I believe, to any successful nutrition plan, whether you are pregnant or not. Sometimes, if your eating habits are currently disordered, it can take awhile to learn your own hunger cues again, but pregnancy can be the perfect time to work on it. For myself, I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of getting more fruits and veggies into my day, but still love the opportunity to eat ice cream and salt water taffy! My hubby and I have also used this time to experiment with more vegetarian dishes, and have loved the variety! For more tips on fitness and pregnancy, try this blog:

  20. Britt says:

    I completely agree. I’ve always eaten mostly healthy and fruit obsessed. My doctor was pretty good about making sure I was eating the right things, but mostly it was just making sure my son and I were healthy. Articles like this make me feel soooo lucky, though at the time i felt bad for gaining 37lbs, when I always read “average sized women should gain 25-35 lbs”. I wished at the time, that I hadn’t just eaten this or that. However, looking back, i’m completely happy with my pregnancy weight, and was feeding off of everyone telling me “oh you look good for having a baby X weeks/months ago!” A year and a half later though, I sort of obsess about my weight, though it’s the same (some days 3 or 4lbs more) as prepregnancy. I do remembe thinking “heck, i’m pregnant, I can eat that.” and loving it. :)

  21. heather says:

    I love this piece! For so many women weight gain during pregnancy is not strictly related to what they eat. I was lucky to have a doctor who understood that. He focused more on WHAT I ate than on the fact that I gained 10lbs more than is recommended. He told me that as long as MOST of what I was eating was healthy, a litlle extra weight gain was okay. Plus, since I lost 10lbs due to first trimester morning sickness, he was really just happy that I started gaining regularly. Some women will simply gain more weight on the same number/type of calories than other women will. We have different metabolisms.

  22. kate says:

    For my first pregnancy- food was a nightmare. I couldn’t eat anything without barfing it back up. I ended up 4 pant sizes smaller after all was said and done. People commented on how great I looked, but it was hardly worth the effort of being sick all the time. With my second pregnancy, I didn’t get on a scale once. I knew it would be upsetting and I chose to focus on how I felt and what my body needed, rather than what a number told me about my health. Consequently, I felt much better, had a more relaxing time eating and made healthier choices throughout the pregnancy.

  23. Lindsey says:

    My doctor told me at my 28 week check up to lose weight. I had only gained 7 lbs during the pregnancy that far, still fit into my regular clothes, passed the glucose tolerance test, but I have a GIANT belly. My little man sticks waaay out there. I’m only 5 feet tall, so baby looks huge in my tiny frame….I ended up losing 3 lbs in 2 weeks, and he gave me a high five at my 30 week appointment and told me to keep going. I wanted to just spit on him.

  24. im-in-tx says:

    My midwife has been lovely. She asked me about my diet, and after finding out that it is quite healthy — low processed, lots of fruits and veg — she said not to worry about my weight at all. I started pregnancy rather small, haven’t binged, and am probably close to 40 pounds up during my third trimester. So… maybe that’s just what my body and this particular baby need!

  25. Lissa says:

    I found it to be an amazingly freeing … having a history of disordered eating, I was recovered by the time I got pregnant and I have loved every minute of pregnancy and motherhood since … I needed to be at a good place first, though. I listened to my body more, ate what I wanted but didn’t binge … it was a wonderful experience and has continued.

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