Now that Jessica Simpson has—finally—given birth to baby girl Maxwell, she already has the gossip mill buzzing about whether she'll be able to lose the roughly 60 pounds she gained during pregnancy. Her fuller figure has been chided by celebrities and doctors alike, who said 60 pounds is way too much for an expecting mother to gain, as it could cause delivery complications or set a child up for diabetes. This isn't the first time the 31-year-old singer has had her weight under a microscope (remember the mom jeans incident?) and it won't likely be the last.
While celebrity moms make it seem like post-baby weight loss is just for vanity (a bikini-clad Heidi Klum wowed audiences at a Victoria's Secret fashion show in 2005 just eight weeks after giving birth), the reality is that it's critical for your health, too.
Shedding pregnancy pounds is "absolutely necessary," says Raul Artal, chair of St. Louis University's Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women's Health. Most women gain between 20 and 40 pounds during pregnancy, but holding onto those pounds can lead to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease down the line. "After pregnancy, women should return to normal range for body mass index [a measure of body fat based on height and weight], which is anywhere between 19 and 25."
How long that should take depends on the individual. Celebrities have been known to drop pregnancy pounds in mere weeks by turning to questionable tactics such as fad diets, "extreme breast pumping," or having fat surgically removed from one spot and transplanted to another. Experts say a more realistic time frame for regaining your figure via healthier means is a several months. However, if you put on more than the average 25 to 40 pounds, or if you were overweight or obese before pregnancy, it could take as many as nine or more. In any case, aim to lose the weight before your baby's first birthday; studies have shown that any weight you retain beyond that point is unlikely to ever come off. Your doctor can help you determine the safest schedule.
As for Simpson, she will surely have an entourage of personal chefs, trainers, and nannies to help her get back in shape. Although most moms don't have these luxuries, weight loss after pregnancy is certainly doable. Some strategies:
Don't cut calories. Most women who want to lose weight try cutting calories or going on diets—but you shouldn't skimp on food if you've just given birth, especially if you're breastfeeding. You'll need lots of nutrients to make sure you and your baby stay healthy. Rather than trimming calories, eliminate junk food from your diet to shed pounds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that new moms say goodbye to soda, candy, dessert, sweetened cereals, fried foods, fatty meats, and even cheese, whole milk, and sweetened yogurt. Instead, embrace foods without extra sugar or fat, and make sure to get at least 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of vegetables, 8 ounces of grains, 6.5 ounces of meat or beans, and 3 cups of low-fat or non-fat milk each day. Artal suggests spreading this out over three meals and three small snacks daily.
Breastfeed instead of using formula. Breastfeeding is not only good for babies—it immunizes them against diseases and gives them the nutrients they need to grow—it might also help mothers shed post-pregnancy pounds, says Artal. He estimates that breastfeeding burns 600 calories each day, the equivalent of roughly two hours of moderate exercise, depending on your weight and the activity you choose.
Go on walks. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists emphasizes the role of exercise in post-baby weight loss. While many experts have advised against exercise until six weeks after delivery, ACOG says there's no evidence that "in the absence of medical complications, rapid resumption of activities will result in adverse effects." Depending on the type of delivery you had, you may not feel ready to run long distances or lift weights right away, so Artal suggests walking, which he says is "always a safe type of physical activity." Aim for 30 minutes of moderate or brisk walking each day. Pushing your baby in a stroller will burn extra calories. And exercise has another perk besides weight loss: It may thwart postpartum depression.