Eating disorders (EDs) are complex disorders. However, the complexity increases when women are struggling with eating disorders while pregnant — a time when the lives of two people are at stake: Mom and baby.
“Pregorexia” is the current fashionable phrase for this situation. The term, coined by the media, is not a diagnosed medical condition, but rather a clever descriptive name of a condition that can be life-threatening to both a pregnant mom and her unborn child.
What is Pregorexia?
Pregorexia refers to any woman who is engaging in ED behaviors while pregnant. These behaviors might include restriction of calories, over exercise, bingeing and purging, or abuse of laxatives or diet pills. Any of these unhealthy behaviors is used by the mom-to-be to control her weight gain and body size.
Most women who are in recovery or in an active phase of the ED struggle with fears related to pregnancy weight gain. Yet, pregnancy can be a time when an ED goes into remission because the mom feels she can let go of the behaviors in order to provide for the health of her baby.
However, in the case of someone who is experiencing pregorexia, the thoughts and behaviors of the ED are stronger than her will to properly care for herself and her baby. The pressure to be thin, even during pregnancy, can be overwhelming.
Dangers for Mom
Pregorexia can cause a number of medical and psychological complications for a mother during and after pregnancy, including:
- Poor nutrition
- Cardiac irregularities
- Premature births
- Labor complications including Caesarean delivery
- Difficulties with nursing
- Pregnancy and/or postpartum depression
Calorie restriction during pregnancy affects both the mother and baby. To insure the health of the fetus, the baby’s nutritional needs are biologically primary, often at the expense of the mother. For example, if only a limited amount of calcium is ingested, it first goes to the growing baby and the mom may get little or none, putting her at greater risk for development of osteoporosis.
For someone with pregorexia, the
thoughts and behaviors of the ED are
stronger than her will to properly care
for herself and her baby.
Dangers for Baby
Experts suggest that behaviors such as purging, restricting, and use of laxatives or diuretics on a regular basis can be harmful to a developing fetus and may lead to abnormalities. Studies report complications can affect both the baby before birth and the growing child years after birth.
Risks to Fetus and Infant include:
- Intrauterine growth retardation (poor fetal growth)
- Low birth weight
- Premature birth
- Low APGAR scores
- Respiratory distress
- Feeding difficulties
- Neurological defects due to oxygen deprivation resulting from mom’s excessive exercise
A number of factors can lead to the development of pregorexia, many of which are the same as those that underlie the development of an eating disorder during another time of life, such as a history of trauma, neglect, excessive dieting, and poor coping skills. Genetics also plays a factor as does individual temperament, which includes traits such as perfectionism and anxiety.
Still some specific contributors that occur for a woman during pregnancy include:
- A prior history of an ED
- Increased body image issues due to pregnancy weight gain
- Ambivalence of being a new mom and its lifelong responsibilities
- Relationship difficulties with partner due to pending parenthood
- Societal pressure to be thin, even during pregnancy
Illustrating this last point are the increasing numbers of celebrity pregnancies chronicled in the media. We marvel at how trim and fit they remain, sometimes barely showing their “baby bumps.” Then we watch them quickly regain their pre-pregnancy shape, often within weeks post delivery. Falsely touted as a “good” thing to which all of us should aspire, these stories actually place tremendous pressure on women who are already struggling with body image issues as a result of their ED.
Someone with pregorexia may show some of the following warning signs:
- Pre-occupation with the number on the scale and weight gain
- Exercising excessively
- Highly critical of her body
- Minimal weight gain
- Smaller than average “baby bump”
- Signs of depression
Steps to Ensure a Healthy Pregnancy
It’s important for women to resolve any eating disorder behaviors well before conception. However, if you have an ED and become pregnant, you can take these steps to safeguard your health and your baby’s:
- Abstain from any disordered eating, including restricting intake or bingeing and purging.
- Be proactive in disclosing your ED history with your obstetrician.
- Per obstetrician’s guidance, ensure proper weight gain during pregnancy.New guidelines from the Institute of Medicine recommend that women of normal weight should gain approximately 25 to 35 pounds during pregnancy. If the woman is underweight at the time of conception, the weight gain suggested is 40 to 50 pounds or more, depending on the patient.
- If needed, recruit a team of specialists to work with you during pregnancy, including an obstetrician, therapist, nutritionist, and psychiatrist, as needed, all of whom are experienced in treating EDs.
Call For Action
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with pregorexia, seek out help immediately from medical specialists who are experienced in treating women with eating disorders. It’s imperative that the obstetrician is informed because pregnant women with EDs require “high risk” obstetrical care. The heath of both baby and mom depends on it.
By Maggie Baumann, MA
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Summer 2009 Volume 7, Number 3
©2009 Gürze Books
About the Author
Maggie Baumann, MA, is a marriage family therapist intern working in a private practice in Newport Beach as well as at The Victorian in Newport Beach. She can be reached at Maggie-Baumann@cox.net or visit her website at MaggieBaumann.com.
Dr. Gnap website editor eatingdisordersrecoverytoday.com. Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.