THE BLOG

The Link Between Weight Loss and Breastfeeding

09/03/2010 08:33 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Note to new moms: If you breastfeed now, you'll be more likely to slip back into those skinny jeans for years to come.

In a new study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that even one month of breastfeeding can ward off weight gain well into the future -- perhaps even for the rest of one's life. In other words, once you pump, you won't go plump.

The study, published in the September issue of The American Journal of Medicine, also shows that breastfeeding can help women avoid diabetes. The researchers found that one in four women who didn't breastfeed developed type 2 diabetes, and mothers who didn't breast feed were almost twice as likely to develop diabetes than women who breastfed their children or never gave birth.

"Women store up fat in their bodies during pregnancy, and the expectation is that they'll release it [through breastfeeding]," says Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, the lead author of the study, who was inspired to investigate the issues when she became a new mom herself. She wanted to return to work quickly, but also knew that doctors recommend 12 months of breastfeeding. She also noticed that the breast milk she'd been storing in the refrigerator had a large layer of cream, almost resembling a stick of butter.

Schwarz asked more than 2,000 women between the ages of 40 and 80 about their breastfeeding history, and then measured their body-mass indexes and waistlines. She found that breastfeeding mothers had, on average, a waist size of 37 inches, while those who didn't breastfeed had an average 38-inch waist. Even older women who hadn't been pregnant for decades were more likely to be skinny if they'd breastfed for as little as a month.

Diabetes, says Schwarz, is often developed when people carry excess weight around the waistline, as opposed to other parts of the body; people are healthiest when their weight is distributed around their thighs and bottoms. "It's like the difference between apples and pears," says Schwarz. "It's always better to be a pear."

Over the last century there have been substantial increases in the prevalence of diabetes in many countries, and in the United States, more than 10 percent of women over 20 are estimated to have diabetes.

Diabetes Can Lead to Sexual Problems

Besides being associated with weight gain, diabetes can also lead to sexual problems among older women. In another new study, published in the September issue of Diabetes Care, researchers at the University of Chicago reported that middle-aged and older diabetic women who are sexually active have lower libidos and climax less than their non-diabetic counterparts.

The researchers studied more than 1,000 women and asked them how often they orgasm during intercourse. 43.6 percent of diabetic women indicated that they never orgasm, compared to 37.9 percent of non-diabetic women. Asked if they'd masturbated at least once in the past year, only 15 percent of women with diabetes reported doing so, compared to 29 percent of non-diabetic women. (The researchers also ran similar studies on diabetic men, who also reported more sexual problems.)

The researchers can't explain with assurance what accounts for the statistics, but lead author Dr. Stacy Lindau has some suggestions.

"Diabetes can have an effect on small vessel function that is needed for stimulation of the clitoris, arousal and orgasm," she says. "It may be that changes to those vessels prevent a women to experience full arousal, especially with clitoral stimulation. But there can also be a psychological component. It probably also has something to do about the way the woman feels about herself."

While the data showed that diabetic women report more sexual problems, the researchers insist that, as a group, they still have plenty of sex and should not feel stigmatized.

"Women should know that having diabetes is not a death sentence for the sex life," says Lindau. "One really important value of data is that it allows a woman with diabetes to know that if she wants to remain sexually active, that's actually the norm among other women diabetics her age with diabetes. And maybe that gives her the confidence to raise this as an issue with her physician."