Pregnancy and Eating Disorders: What You Need to Know

March 24, 2022

Pregnancy brings new demands and changes to a person’s body – it’s necessary to get the right amount of caloric intake, vitamins, and minerals to remain healthy and ensure the fetus is developing. Prenatal care is highly specialized, and nutritionists have developed detailed eating plans for pregnancy to match these requirements. Unfortunately, many eating disorders bring nutritional imbalances and a lack of adequate caloric intake, causing several health problems to arise and possibly endangering the pregnancy.

During pregnancy, this can have a powerful effect on both the individual and the fetus. Before pregnancy, an eating disorder that involves restriction or purging can drop nutritional levels to a point where menstruation stops, a condition called amenorrhea. This is known to make becoming pregnant more difficult. However, some studies indicate that individuals with Anorexia Nervosa have accidental pregnancies much more often than expected because they mistakenly think there is no need for contraception. Anorexia Nervosa is not the only eating disorder that affects pregnancy and conception. Individuals with Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, OSFED, and ARFID have all shown irregular menstruation and complicated pregnancies.

During a pregnancy, without eating disorder treatment and support, the following health issues could arise as a result of engaging in disordered eating behaviors:

Early Labor
Pregnant individuals with eating disorders are subject to a higher chance of premature labor and early birth than others. By the time the fetus is viable, especially in the latter stages of pregnancy, getting enough nutrients to facilitate rapid growth is difficult without enough nutritional intake. When an eating disorder present, the lack of nutritional intake may cause a miscarriage or premature birth.

Some of the complications of having a child before their due date might include:

  • Incomplete organ development
  • Anemia
  • Jaundice
  • Infections
  • Low heart rate

Premature babies are often required to stay in intensive care for weeks or months after birth for support with breathing and feeding until their bodies can take over.

Postpartum Depression
Another study performed by NIMH indicated that without treatment, the presence of an eating disorder can significantly increase the risk of postpartum depression. Depression and anxiety are common co-occurring disorders; they can often act as triggers for disordered eating behaviors. When added to the increased risk of depression after giving birth, these factors make a depressive episode much more likely. In fact, up to 30% of individuals with eating disorders go on to develop postpartum depression after giving birth, which is 10% higher than those who don’t show symptoms of an eating disorder.

Slower Fetal Growth and Developmental Issues
When pregnant individuals do not take in enough calories each day, their body struggles to provide enough energy for proper fetal growth. In many cases, this can result in premature births that cause low birth weights and nutritional deficiencies in the infant. Even when brought to term, the baby may suffer from lower weight or other issues.

Furthermore, restricted growth can impact how fetuses’ organs form, resulting in an increased risk of breathing difficulties, brain hemorrhages, and heart problems. In the modern-day, pregnancy is heavily managed; sonograms and genetic testing allow doctors and nurses to monitor the fetus’s health. The prenatal medical team will normally try to counteract these symptoms with vitamins and other nutrients, but prolonged minimal caloric and nutritional intake only exacerbate developmental issues.

Heart Health
Pregnancy puts stress on the heart as the individual gains weight and provides additional blood flow to the fetus. This can cause inadequate oxygen flow to the fetus, which might cause brain damage or other organ difficulties. Disordered eating behaviors put additional strain on the heart by limiting nutrients that it needs to work effectively.

As sodium, potassium, magnesium, and other electrolytes swing out of balance, the neural signals to the heart can be interrupted, which can cause heart irregularities. As this repeatedly occurs, the heart muscle can start to atrophy, resulting in lasting health problems for the individual.

Struggles With Body Image
With exceptions such as ARFID, which does not usually include body image disturbances, many people with eating disorders are dissatisfied with their weight or have a fear of gaining weight. Pregnancy, of course, causes weight gain, even in people who restrict calories or purge. This can be very difficult for a person with body dysmorphia to deal with. They might double down on disordered eating behaviors to counteract the natural weight gain that comes with pregnancy.

Additionally, people are more likely to comment on a pregnant person’s body, as misguided as this is. They may mention something like, “You’re as big as a house!” Although they may be well-meaning, people with eating disorders are already sensitive about their bodies and weight gain, so the pregnancy may be a time full of triggers surrounding their body.

Seeking Help
As pregnancy can act as a trigger for body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviors, early care from eating disorder specialists is essential to prevent lack of nutrition from disturbing the health of both the fetus and the individual. Unfortunately, eating disorders tend to cause missed or late periods, causing the pregnancy to be unexpected. While this might cause or worsen feelings of guilt on the part of the individual, there is no reason to lose hope. Thankfully, it is never too late to receive eating disorder support and start making healthy changes during pregnancy.

Monte Nido & Affiliates delivers clinically comprehensive, research-backed treatment to adults and adolescents with eating and co-occurring disorders, within a healing environment. As a Miami, FL-based company, Monte Nido & Affiliates has over 40 programs in 13 states, offering a full continuum of care. Founded in 1996, Monte Nido & Affiliates specializes in the treatment of eating disorders for all genders and includes five distinct clinical programs: Monte Nido, Walden Behavioral Care, Clementine, Oliver-Pyatt Centers, and Rosewood Centers. For over two decades, our tenured and expert staff — which includes recovered professionals — has delivered treatment that leads to full recovery.