Eating Disorders in Pregnancy

This is a guest post contributed by Hari Malhi of Meds4All UK

Having an eating disorder while pregnant can be particularly difficult due to all the hormonal changes in the body. A research study carried out in the UK found that about 7% of pregnant women were experiencing an eating disorder. This number is likely to actually be higher as some women either hide the signs of their disorder or deny having it to begin with. Additionally, common symptoms associated with pregnancy such as vomiting and weight gain can also disguise the presence of an eating disorder.

 The results from a recent study

According to a study led by a team of researchers at the UCL Institute of Child Health, eating disorders are quite common among pregnant women. The study, which included over 700 women, found that 25% of them were extremely concerned about their weight and body image. However, only a very small percentage of them tried extreme behaviours to lose weight, such as over exercising, skipping meals and induced vomiting.

One in 12 pregnant women said their eating habits were out of control at least twice a week. They reported episodes of binge eating and not being able to maintain a strict diet. In the final analysis, one in 14 were deemed to have an eating disorder.

The researchers recommended the following: pregnant women need to be assessed for an eating disorder when they attend their antenatal check up, as pregnancy can be a time of increased risk for the mother and developing baby.

What are the risks?

Pregnancy will often heighten some of the symptoms of an eating disorder, meaning if patients have bulimia nervosa, they’re likely to experience more dehydration and an increased level of chemical imbalances in their digestive system. Women struggling with bulimia often have increased rates of postpartum depression, which in turn leads to more difficulties with breastfeeding. Furthermore, it’s not safe for pregnant women to take too many laxatives and diuretics as these could cause harm to the baby. These types of medication take away fluids and nutrients before they can nourish the baby.

If a woman has anorexia nervosa she may not be able to put on enough weight while pregnant. Therefore, she carries the risk of conceiving a baby with an extremely low birth weight. The majority of anorexic women do not have regular periods due to their low calorie intakes and/or high levels of stress. An irregular period makes it more challenging for those who are trying to get pregnant in the first place.

Other health complications

If a woman has an eating disorder while pregnant, there are several other potential health complications involved including:

  • Higher risk of a caesarean birth
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Severe depression
  • Miscarriage

Since the growing baby gets all its nourishment from the mother, it’s all the more important for pregnant women to eat a nutritious diet and sustain a healthy body weight for many months before and after giving birth.

Do you need to seek help?

Help is available from NCFED and other qualified healthcare professionals if you are concerned about eating disorders. (please ask for our top tips document on choosing a therapist). One to one counselling may be helpful in allowing you to deal with issues you may have regarding body image, food and weight gain. It could also be helpful to get advice from a nutritionist who has a history of helping patients with eating disorders.