“Pregorexia” refers to a woman’s drive to control pregnancy weight gain through extreme dieting and exercise. The term is not a formally recognized medical diagnosis. It was coined by the media, public, and doctors in recent years.
The word pregorexia is a blend of “pregnancy” and “anorexia”. Women with anorexia have a distorted body image and an exaggerated fear of becoming fat, which can lead to an obsession with calorie intake and restriction and extreme efforts to lose weight. Other eating disorders that may happen during pregnancy are bulimia and binge eating. Bulimia is typically marked by a binge-purge habit, in which a person consumes a large amount of food and then vomits, exercises excessively, or uses laxatives to rid the body of the extra calories. Binge eating involves consuming excessive amounts of food, and it can lead to excess weight gain during pregnancy and high birth-weight babies. Women that binge eat tend to skip meals, especially breakfast, and have long intervals without food between binges. The disorder can expose fetuses to long periods without nutrients followed by sugar rushes.
How common is pregorexia?
There are no known statistics on how many pregnant women experience pregorexia. However, recent studies suggest that about 30% of American women don’t gain enough weight during pregnancy. A study conducted in the United Kingdom found that, during pregnancy, 7.5% of women met diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, approximately one quarter (23.4%) reported high weight and shape concern during pregnancy, and 8.8% of them had a binge eating disorder.
What are the potential risks of pregorexia to the developing baby?
Maternal malnutrition is a key contributor to poor fetal growth, low birthweight, and short- and long-term infant morbidity and mortality.
What are the potential risks of pregorexia to the mother?
Anorexia has been linked to an increased risk of heart attack. Bulimia can lead to erosion of the esophagus and other severe digestive problems.
How can pregorexia be identified?
While far more women gain too much weight during pregnancy, some women do excessively worry about their weight gain and experience body image issues during pregnancy. However, not every woman who struggles with weight gain during pregnancy has an eating disorder! The risk of pregorexia might be higher for women who have a history of eating disorders and those who have a weak social support system.
Specific warning signs of pregorexia might include:
- Constantly worrying about the permanent effects the pregnancy could have on your body
- Talking about the pregnancy as if it weren’t real
- Heavily focusing on calorie counts
- Eating alone or skipping meals
- Extreme exercise and refusing to stop even after worrying signs such as uterine bleeding
Pregorexia may also be manifested as a preoccupation with losing weight as soon as possible after you give birth. Some women have reported excessive physical exercise after having a C-section. This could be very harmful and, potentially, endanger your life.
How can pregorexia be prevented?
It is possible that feeling out of control during pregnancy might trigger underlying tendencies of disordered eating. If those tendencies exist, most likely they were there before conception. Talk to your health care provider if you think you have such tendencies. You may need to discuss your situation with an expert in eating disorders.
Do not focus on pregnant celebrities’ media coverage that show how much weight they gain and how quickly they lose it. Unfortunately, recent media coverage of pregnant personalities has fueled an “obsession” with weight during pregnancy and after.
One effective way to stop worrying about pregnancy weight gain is simply to relax. Be aware and internalize that your body changes are happening for a really good reason — and that they’re not permanent.
I think I may have pregorexia. What should I do?
First, speak up, share your story, and fight against the shame that comes from eating disorders. How? Talk to your closest friends and/or family members. You should be aware that sharing your story in social media may attract both supporters and opponents, so be prepared for that if you choose to go public (read here about the extreme reactions that Maggie Baumann received after she blogged about her struggles with anorexia during pregnancy).
Second, as a pregnant woman with an eating disorder, you need help from caring treatment professionals who will support you through your pregnancy to ensure the healthiest outcome for both you and your baby. Your health care provider can help you determine an appropriate weight gain during pregnancy, based on your pre-pregnancy weight and body mass index. He or she can also explain how to use healthy lifestyle habits and proper nutrition to control weight gain during pregnancy. It might also be helpful to consult a registered dietitian or a mental health provider as well.