Eating Disorders and Pregnancy

An eating disorder is a mental illness that is characterized by irregular eating behaviors and patterns coupled with concern and distress over body shape and weight. Eating disorders can cause an increased difficulty in getting pregnant or increase the risks associated with pregnancy.2 Having an eating disorder while pregnant can increase the likelihood cardiac irregularities in the mother, postpartum depression, difficulties during labor, gestational diabetes, and difficulties nursing. Eating disorders can also affect the effectiveness of one’s birth control. Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders can each negatively affect a pregnancy in their own way.1 It is important to reach out for help if you become pregnant while suffering from an eating disorder. Reach out to your healthcare provider to ensure a healthy pregnancy and low-risk labor. A nutritionist may also be helpful to ensure you are maintaining a healthy diet.

 

Anorexia

Anorexia can make it extremely difficult for a person to become pregnant and it can make a pregnancy significantly more risky.1 Amenorrhea, or the cessation of menstruation, often accompanies anorexia. This not only makes it extremely hard to conceive a child, but also increases the risk for a spontaneous abortion, a more difficult birthing process, and a longer postpartum amenorrhea phase. Malnutrition in the mother can also cause health problems for the fetus. The baby may be born with a dangerously low birth weight if the mother does not consume an adequate amount of calories during pregnancy.1

 

Bulimia

Bulimia can cause several complications during pregnancy including malnutrition and dehydration.1 If the mother is not absorbing enough nutrients from the food she eats, the baby could have a low birth weight and suffer from related health consequences. Dehydration during pregnancy can cause health complications for both the mother and baby. Purging also heightens the risk for the mother to suffer from cardiac problems and chemical imbalances.1

 

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder (BED) typically causes the person to gain weight. Pregnancy while overweight increases the risk for developing gestational diabetes and high blood pressure. Being overweight can also cause the baby to be born overweight.1

Weight Gain During Pregnancy

People suffering from eating disorders may have an intense fear of gaining weight.2 However, weight gain during pregnancy is completely normal and necessary to ensure a healthy pregnancy. Although it can be extremely worrisome for people with eating disorders, it is essential for the mother to eat enough healthy food so that she and her child to receive and adequate amount of nutrients. It is recommended to maintain a healthy diet and weight for several months before attempting to get pregnant to maximize the safety of both the mother and child. If a person becomes pregnant while struggling with an eating disorder, seek help from a medical professional and nutritionist as soon as possible to maintain a healthy weight and consume a healthy diet for both the mother and child. Weight gain may increase body dissatisfaction in people with eating disorders. If feelings of body dissatisfaction from weight gain are overwhelming during pregnancy, the person could opt for blind weigh ins throughout her pregnancy to ensure they are maintaining a healthy weight.2 The mother can also join pregnancy or eating disorder support groups.

Eating Disorders and Birth Control

Eating disorders may also affect the effectiveness of certain birth control methods.1 Binge eating disorder can cause a person to gain weight. Being overweight reduces the effectiveness of some hormonal birth controls like the pill. Bulimia can also reduce the effectiveness of the pill if purging occurs within four hours of consuming the pill. Non-hormonal birth control methods like an intrauterine device (IUD) may be more beneficial and effective for people with eating disorders.1

 

Signs to Watch Out For

Suffering from an eating disorder while pregnant can be extremely harmful for both the mother and child. If you think someone you know may be suffering from an eating disorder during pregnancy, watch out for the following symptoms:2

  • A person with an eating disorder may avoid eating certain food groups.

  • An eating disorder may cause someone to avoid eating in public.

  • Not gaining an adequate amount of weight during pregnancy could be a symptom of an eating disorder.

  • A person suffering from an eating disorder may avoid eating a normal amount of food.

  • A pregnant person with an eating disorder may express extreme body dissatisfaction due to weight gain.2

The above are simply a few easily recognizable symptoms. If you recognize these symptoms or other concerning behaviors in yourself or a loved one, seek help from your doctor as soon as possible to ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy.

 

If You or a Loved One Is Pregnant and Has an Eating Disorder

If you or a loved one become pregnant while suffering from an eating disorder, seek help from a medical professional as soon as possible.1 Be honest with the prenatal care provider to ensure all of the mother and baby’s needs will be addressed during pregnancy. Allowing the doctor to weigh the mother throughout pregnancy is necessary to make sure is maintaining a healthy weight. If the mother’s weight is especially concerning, have the doctor perform a blind weigh in by having her stand backwards on the scale and not sharing the number with her. Before exercising during pregnancy, ask the doctor if exercising fits into the recovery plan and is safe for pregnancy. Consulting a nutritionist may also be beneficial. A nutritionist can provide a detailed dietary plan for the mother to follow to maintain a healthy weight and consume a healthy amount of calories. Individual counseling during pregnancy may also be helpful in dealing with fears of weight gain and body dissatisfaction issues. Counseling and advice from a nutritionist may continue to be necessary postpartum as well to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Taking pregnancy classes with a significant other will also help both partners prepare for life as a parent and caregiver. If your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder while pregnant, avoid making statements about their weight. For example, it is common for people to say “You’re getting so big!” as positive words of encouragement. However, for a person with an eating disorder, this statement can be detrimental to their body image. Stay supportive of your partner’s recovery throughout their entire pregnancy and afterwards.1

 

Resources

If you think you may have an eating disorder or if you think you know someone with an eating disorder, there are many resources available for you. Doctors can provide a variety of resources for you such as referrals, pamphlets, books, websites, and more. Other U.S. based online help centers and hotlines include the following:3

  • Eating Disorders Victoria Helpline Phone Number: 1-(300)-550-236

  • ANAD Help Line Phone Number: (630)-577-1330

  • ANAD Help Line Email: anadhelp@anad.org

  • Support group finder: suportgroups@anad.org

  • NEDA Hotline: 1-(800)-931-2237

  • NEDA Crisis Text Line: text “NEDA” to 741741 to connect to a trained volunteer

Concluding Remarks

Having an eating disorder while pregnant is extremely harmful and risky for both the mother and the child. Seek help as soon as possible to ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy. Pregnancy can also be helpful in the road to recovery from an eating disorder. Pregnancy allows a person to focus on self-care and prioritize their own physical and mental health. Feel free to read our articles regarding pregnancy and eating disorders for more helpful information.

 

References

  1. “Pregnancy and Eating Disorders.” National Eating Disorders Association, 22 Feb. 2018.
  2. “Dealing with Pregnancy and Eating Disorders, What to Expect.” Eating Disorder Hope.
  3. “Help & Support.” National Eating Disorders Association, 22 Feb. 2018.

Last Updated: 27 May 2018.

 
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