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.
Maggie Baumann, MA: "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 for a condition that can be life-threatening to both a pregnant mom and her unborn child.
I recently shared my own personal struggle with pregorexia last month on momlogic. Although my post drew a lot of interest from readers, it did not explain in detail what pregorexia is and how it affects both mother and unborn child.
I thought I would take this opportunity to clue you in on this disorder that can damage the lives of everyone involved ... mother, baby, and family.
What is Pregorexia?
Pregorexia refers to any woman who is engaging in ED behaviors while pregnant. These behaviors might include restriction of calories, overexercise, 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 during pregnancy.
Most women who are in ED recovery or in an active phase of an 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 pregnancy.
Risks to Mom Include:
• Poor nutrition
• Cardiac irregularities
• Premature births
• Labor complications, including increased risk of 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 more at risk for development of osteoporosis.
Dangers for Baby
Experts suggest that pregnant women with eating disorders may put their children at greater risk for a number of serious conditions. 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. These include: a history of trauma, neglect, excessive dieting, and poor coping skills. Genetics also play a factor, as does individual temperament, which includes traits such as perfectionism and anxiety.
Still, there are some specific contributors that occur for a woman during pregnancy:
• A woman with a history of an ED is more vulnerable to pregorexia
• Increased body image issues due to pregnancy weight gain
• Ambivalence toward being a new mom and its lifelong responsibilities
• Relationship difficulties with a partner due to pending parenthood
• Societal pressure to be thin, even during pregnancy
The increasingly large numbers of celebrity pregnancies chronicled in the media illustrate this last point. We marvel at how trim and fit these women remain, sometimes barely showing their "baby bumps." Then we watch them quickly regain their pre-pregnancy shape, often within weeks post-delivery. This is being falsely touted as a "good" thing, something to which all of us should aspire. This places tremendous pressure on women who are already struggling with body image issues as a result of their ED.
Watch for These Warning Signs
Someone with pregorexia may show some of the following warning signs:
• Preoccupation with the number on the scale and weight gain
• Exercising excessively
• Highly critical of her body
• Minimal weight gain
• Smaller than average "baby bump"
• Showing signs of depression
Action 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:
1. Abstain from any disordered eating, including restricting calorie intake or bingeing and purging.
2. Be proactive in disclosing your ED history with your obstetrician.
3. Under your obstetrician's guidance, ensure proper weight gain during pregnancy. New guidelines from the Institute of Medicine recommend women of normal weight to 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.
4. 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, are 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. Both baby and Mom's health depends on it.
I close on this note ... Had I been armed with this information at the time I experienced pregorexia 20 years ago, I can only wish I would have reached out for help.
Post Your Comment
What behaviors by Mom do you think are harmful to a growing baby during pregnancy? Would you approach a pregnant mother if you suspected she was not taking care of herself and her baby? And lastly, have you ever exhibited harmful behaviors during your pregnancy that could have affected your baby's health?
|Maggie Baumann, M.A., is a marriage family therapist intern working as a counselor in a private practice in Newport Beach as well as at The Victorian in Newport Beach, a residential treatment facility providing care to women struggling with eating disorders, addictions and body image. Maggie has written for various publications and appeared on national television promoting eating disorder awareness and prevention. She also facilitates two eating disorder support groups in Orange County, one in Newport Beach and the other in Laguna Beach. You can reach Maggie by email or visit her website at MaggieBaumann.com.|