Pregnancy can be a time of great joy, but it can also be a time of great stress.
If you’re pregnant and have an eating disorder, it’s important to know that you are not alone!
Eating disorders are a lot more common than people realise, in fact, BEAT estimates that around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, many of which are pregnant.
This guide provides answers to the most frequently asked questions about eating disorders and pregnancy, so you can find what you need to know fast–from how to know whether you or your loved one has an eating disorder, the effects during pregnancy, and where to get help.
Even during pregnancy, having an eating disorder is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a mental health illness and shouldn’t come with a stigma.
Let’s begin by looking at how common eating disorders are in pregnancy, the answer might surprise you.
How Common Are Eating Disorders During Pregnancy?
A study led by researchers at the UCL Institute of Child Health, including over 700 women, found that 25% of them were extremely concerned about their weight and body image.
12% of the pregnant women said that at least twice a week, their eating habits were out of control. They reported episodes of binge eating and not being able to maintain a healthy diet.
Of the study participants, one in 14 was diagnosed with an eating disorder. And this number could even be higher than reported, as some women either hide the signs of their disorder or deny having one altogether.
The researchers concluded that all pregnant women should be assessed for an eating disorder when they attend their antenatal check-up, as eating disorders are more commonplace than is generally believed and can put both mother and baby at risk.
What Are The Different Types of Eating Disorders
An eating disorder is a mental health condition that’s characterised by an unhealthy relationship with food and/or weight.
Eating disorders can be very serious and life-threatening, but they are treatable.
Knowledge of eating disorders can help you recognise them in yourself or others, so let’s take a look at the different types.
There are four main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder). Each type has its own set of symptoms, treatment options, and prognosis.
Anorexia nervosa is characterised by an intense fear of gaining weight and an irrational desire to be thin. People who suffer from anorexia often experience extreme weight loss, have trouble sleeping or feeling tired during the day, and may become obsessed with exercise or counting calories. They may also exhibit signs of depression or anxiety.
In bulimia nervosa, people eat large amounts of food in a short period of time (bingeing), then try to get rid of that food by vomiting or using laxatives (purging). This process can lead to serious health issues like tooth decay and electrolyte imbalance.
Binge Eating Disorder
People with binge eating disorder experience periods where they eat unusually large amounts of food within two hours at least once a week for three months straight—and feel out-of-control during these binges. They may eat fast during these episodes,
Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder is a condition that is similar to other eating disorders but does not meet the full criteria for any of the specific types. People with OSFED are often in denial about their disease, which can make it difficult to diagnose.
Although there are no specific guidelines, there are certain behaviours and symptoms that might indicate that a person has this disorder. For example:
-anxiety or tension around food, eating, or weight
-avoidance of situations involving food
-eating only small amounts of food when feeling hungry (skipping meals)
-feeling out of control while eating
What Are The Signs Of An Eating Disorder In Pregnancy?
It’s important for pregnant women to keep track of their health, and that means being aware of any potential issues that could arise as a result of their pregnancy. Eating disorders are one such issue, and they are treatable if you know how to spot them.
If you’re feeling like something is amiss with how you feel about your body, or how much you’re eating, or if you’re having thoughts that aren’t normal or healthy, it might be time to ask yourself: are you experiencing an eating disorder in pregnancy?
These are some of the signs that might indicate that you or someone you know is struggling with one:
- Restricting food intake or eating very little food
- Having very strict rules or habits about food including compulsive calorie counting
- Missing meals or avoiding food seen as fattening.
- Binge eating
- Purging, through self-induced vomiting or laxative use
- Checking weight several times a day
- Gaining little or no weight
- Constantly expressing fears about body weight, shape, or size
- Feeling shame and guilt about weight gain
- Avoiding eating with others, eating alone, being secretive about food
- Being underweight or having an unusually low body mass index compared with healthy counterparts of the same age.
- Excessive exercising to the point of exhaustion and unwillingness to modify exercise routine
- Chronic fatigue
- Dizziness or blacking out
- Other physical symptoms such as; dry skin and hair loss
One of the most challenging aspects of diagnosing an eating disorder throughout pregnancy is that many of the symptoms can overlap with pregnancy-related conditions.
If an eating disorder is suspected, seek help as soon as possible for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Pregnancy is a vulnerable time, and the sooner support is accessed, the better.
What Causes Eating Disorders During Pregnancy?
It’s no secret that pregnancy changes a woman’s body. But what you may not know is that it can also change her mind.
Pregnant women are often faced with the challenge of combating a slew of symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, and weight gain—all while managing their own expectations and those of others. Some women find themselves struggling with these changes in ways they never expected. And in some cases, this struggle can lead to eating disorders during pregnancy.
There are many theories about what causes eating disorders, but research has shown that genetics could play a major role in who develops an eating disorder and who doesn’t. However, there are other factors that may increase your risk of developing an eating disorder during pregnancy.
The most common cause is a pre-existing eating disorder, which may have gone undiagnosed until the pregnancy. But, other risk factors that can lead to one during pregnancy include:
-A family history of an eating disorder
-A history of traumatic life events or abuse
-Having body image issues or concerns
-Mental health issues such as anxiety or depression
-Having low self-esteem
If you suspect that you might be at risk, pay close attention to your emotional state, be honest with yourself and others about how you’re feeling, and prioritise your mental health.
Do Eating Disorders Get Better Or Worse During Pregnancy?
The answer to this question is: it depends on the person.
Everybody is different, some women who suffer from eating disorders relax and recover knowing that getting better and eating healthy is what their baby needs, for some pregnancy is a time when they can finally turn their life around and start eating healthily again.
Others find that they are unable to overcome their disorder, even during pregnancy.
There are many reasons why eating disorders may get worse during pregnancy. One major factor is hormonal changes. Hormones are powerful and impact our moods and emotions so it’s not surprising that they could impact our behaviour around food as well. Pregnancy hormones can have a massive impact on a woman’s mental health and lead to feelings of depression or anxiety. These feelings can worsen because of the pressure to be healthy while pregnant and deliver a healthy baby. This can in turn lead to an eating disorder or make an existing one worse.
Another reason could be related to stress levels. Pregnancy tends to bring on new worries and responsibilities (not to mention sleep deprivation), which can cause stress levels to rise even higher than they were before becoming pregnant. Stress is known for triggering compulsive behaviours like binge eating, so when you add on worries about your baby or yourself, it’s easy to see why some women find themselves struggling more with their eating disorders during this time in their lives.
If you suspect that you might be at risk, pay close attention to your emotional state, be honest with yourself and others about how you’re feeling, and prioritise your mental health.
How Can Eating Disorders Affect Unborn Babies?
A lot of people are aware that eating disorders can affect pregnant women. But what about unborn babies? The fact is, there are some very serious risks to your baby’s health if you have an eating disorder during pregnancy.
The effects depend on the severity of the disorder, how long it has been going on, and whether or not treatment has been sought.
But in general, babies born to mothers with eating disorders are at a higher risk for:
Low birth weight: Babies born with low birth weights are at higher risk for health issues and developmental delays than those who are born at normal weights.
Premature delivery: If you have an eating disorder that causes you to lose too much weight, it can cause your body to go into labour prematurely.
Birth defects: If you have an eating disorder that causes you to lose too much weight or not eat enough nutrients during pregnancy, you may give birth to a baby with birth defects.
IUGR: Intrauterine growth restriction can occur when the foetus does not grow properly during pregnancy because it does not get enough nutrients from its mother through the placenta. This can result in an infant being born smaller than normal and may have other health issues including brain damage or heart problems.
Miscarriage: The risks of miscarriage are increased when a mother has an eating disorder. The most common reason for this is that the body is not getting the nutrients it needs to support the pregnancy.
Stillbirth: Stillbirth happens when an infant dies during or shortly after birth. In some cases, this may be because of complications related to the mother’s eating disorder. For example, she may have been malnourished or underweight during her pregnancy. This can cause complications for the baby’s development and lead to stillbirth.
Neonatal death – Babies born prematurely or with low birth weights are also at increased risk for neonatal death (within 28 days of delivery).
The risks discussed here demonstrate how crucial it is to seek help. To learn more about resources for support, read on.
How Will An Eating Disorder Affect Mother And Baby After Birth?
An eating disorder doesn’t just affect mother and baby during pregnancy, it also has an impact on their postnatal health. So much so, The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that women with histories of eating disorders be offered psychological treatment during pregnancy and for six months after.
It turns out that many women who experience an eating disorder have issues breastfeeding. Here are a few reasons why:
-Eating disorders can lead to nutrient deficiencies that can negatively impact milk production and quality. This can also lead to failure to thrive in babies since their bodies will not be receiving the nutrients they need for proper development.
-Women with eating disorders may have very low body fat, which makes it difficult to produce enough milk. The amount of calories you consume affects the amount of breast milk your body produces. If you’re not getting enough calories, your body will not be able to make enough milk.
-Some women who have eating disorders may experience stress or anxiety associated with breastfeeding, which can interfere with milk let-down. This can be a problem because the baby needs to suckle frequently in order to get the calories and nutrients he or she needs. If the mother’s body isn’t producing enough milk, it may be necessary to supplement with formula.
Breastfeeding is one of the best ways to help your baby prevent illness and disease, so it’s important that you get all the help you need if you’re struggling with breastfeeding as a result of an eating disorder.
More Chance Of Developing Postnatal Depression
Eating disorders during pregnancy are a huge risk factor for postnatal depression.
When you have an eating disorder during pregnancy, it is not only your physical health affected, there are deeper issues going on within your mind. These same issues will likely continue after giving birth and may cause postnatal depression.
Additionally, women with eating disorders may have lower levels of serotonin and higher levels of cortisol. These hormones are involved in regulating mood, so when they are out of balance, it can lead to depression.
Feelings of guilt or shame mothers have about their eating disorder and its impact on their health and that of their baby can also lead to PND. They may worry about how they will continue to manage care for their family while also managing their own health needs and treatment.
Women who have eating disorders before they become pregnant may too be at risk of developing PND after giving birth. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa result in significant changes to brain chemistry. These changes can persist after recovery from an eating disorder has been achieved, which may increase your risk of developing depression postnatally if you’re experiencing high levels of stress, which can often be high when caring for a new born.
Higher Risk Of Relapse
In the past, people with eating disorders have reported that they tend to relapse after they give birth. One of the reasons why this happens is because of the stress and lack of sleep that comes with parenthood.
Sleep deprivation is a potential trigger for disordered eating behaviours such as bingeing and purging among mothers who have had an eating disorder in the past because it can increase your levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) which can lead to increased hunger and food cravings.
The pressure to cope with a new-born baby could also lead to disordered eating behaviours among mothers if they are already susceptible.
Lastly, women with a history of eating disorders may become depressed about their bodies after giving birth. They may feel unattractive after having a baby, which can lead them to start overeating or restricting their food intake
Make sure that you keep up with all your postnatal appointments and pay attention to signs that might indicate you’re experiencing one of the issues described above.
Do Eating Disorders Affect Fertility?
So, we know eating disorders can affect all aspects of pregnancy, from the initial stages to delivery; but how do they affect fertility? Do they reduce the chances of getting pregnant? Turns out, they do. Here’s how:
One of the most common symptoms of eating disorders is amenorrhea (irregular periods or no menstrual periods). The risk of amenorrhea increases as a result of low body weight, which can have a negative impact on fertility.
Eating disorders can also cause infertility. In addition to irregular periods and amenorrhea, eating disorders can lead to ovarian failure, which means that ovulation will not occur or that the eggs will not be produced. This condition can lead to infertility in women who have recovered from an eating disorder, even if they have been eating normally for years.
The risk of miscarriage and stillbirth may also increase in women who have eating disorders. A woman’s body needs healthy nutrition to support pregnancy. If she is malnourished or has low body weight due to an eating disorder, then there is an increased risk for complications during pregnancy.
That said, not all women with eating disorders will experience impaired fertility and many do have children without any problems.
Should People With Eating Disorders Delay Pregnancy?
Delaying pregnancy is a hot topic in the eating disorder community, with opinions ranging from “Yes, definitely” to “No way.”
Every woman is different, but as we know, eating disorders can potentially have some dangerous effects on both mum and baby.
For some women with an eating disorder, their pregnancy may trigger more intense symptoms due to hormonal changes or because they feel out of control. So if you are struggling with an eating disorder, getting pregnant could be risky—and postponing your pregnancy until after you’ve gotten help might be a good idea.
It’s also important to consider the emotional impact that having a baby could have. Someone who is suffering from an eating disorder may feel overwhelmed by their new responsibilities as a parent when they’re still trying to recover from their own mental health issues caused by it.
If you think you might have an eating disorder, talk to your doctor about whether delaying pregnancy is right for you.
How To Get Help With An Eating Disorder During Pregnancy
Now for the most important part of this guide, how to get help and why you should.
It’s not easy to admit to having an eating disorder—and it’s even harder when you’re pregnant. But your baby is depending on you to take care of yourself. And that includes treating any underlying medical conditions like an eating disorder.
You may be worried about what will happen if you seek treatment, or how your family and friends will react. But we want to assure you: seeking treatment is the best route you can take. It means taking a step toward getting better so that you can be the best parent possible.
Here are some things you can do to find the support you need:
-Talk to your doctor. Your doctor can refer you to specialists who can help with eating disorders during pregnancy, including psychiatrists and dietitians. They can also help determine whether it’s safe for you to continue taking any medications for your condition while pregnant—and what alternative treatments might work best for you instead.
-Call a helpline: Many people have found that talking to someone on the phone is a great way to start getting their questions answered and working through their feelings.
There are many helplines available that can provide information about eating disorders during pregnancy. These include
Beat, 0808 801 0677 (any adult 18 years and older) or 0808 801 0711 (youth line for anyone aged under 18).
Anorexia and Bulimia Care, 03000 11 12 13 (helpline).
– Reach out to a friend or family member: If you don’t feel comfortable talking about your struggles with a stranger or over the phone, consider telling someone close to you instead. It might seem scary at first, but if they care about you, they’ll want what’s best for both of you!
-Find support groups online or in person. Many communities have support groups for people struggling with eating disorders, where you can meet other parents who are going through similar experiences and get advice from professionals as well as other people who have been through it themselves.
How To Support Someone With An Eating Disorder?
When a loved one suffers from an eating disorder, it can be incredibly stressful and hard to know how best to support them.
It’s good to keep in mind that recovery isn’t linear; there will likely be ups and downs along the way, so don’t get discouraged if things seem like they’re going backward for a bit.
Here are some of the best tips for helping:
Talk openly with your loved one about their concerns, if possible. Remember that this is a sensitive topic and may be difficult for them to talk about; be prepared for them to need time before they’re ready to discuss it further.
Provide emotional support: Eating disorders are often accompanied by feelings of shame and guilt, especially during pregnancy. If you suspect that a friend or loved one might have an eating disorder, show them that you care by listening without judgment and offering unconditional love and support.
Help them seek treatment and support from professionals who know how to help people with eating disorders. Offer to accompany them to their appointments so that they don’t feel alone or scared.
Educate yourself on the side effects of eating disorders, so that you can act quickly if something seems off.
Don’t Give Up
We hope that this article has given you valuable insight into eating disorders and pregnancy, as well as ideas for how to get help should you need it. And if you’re pregnant or planning to get pregnant, we wish you a happy and healthy pregnancy!
We also want to encourage you to be kind to yourself. It can be easy to feel guilty about having an eating disorder—especially when it comes with such serious consequences.
Remember that your eating disorder does not define you. Don’t give up on yourself, the sooner you get help the sooner you’ll get better.
Thanks for reading!