Growing a baby and becoming a parent requires a lot of physical, psychological, and emotional strength. The journey before, during, and after pregnancy can be difficult at times, especially for individuals struggling with an eating disorder as pregnancy can magnify negative feelings towards one’s body and towards food. Other the other hand, pregnancy can also be a healing experience for some as it gives a woman responsibility for another life. Either way, becoming pregnant with an eating disorder may be associated with morecomplications for both mom and baby if mom’s body is not adequately prepared and nourished before, during and after pregnancy1.
During pregnancy, there are many important nutrition and energy requirements that must be met in order to grow a healthy baby and maintain mom’s wellbeing. Nutrition and energy requirements become greater at each trimester and they continue to be elevated up to one year post-birth, especially if mom is breastfeeding. In the first trimester, the most important nutrients that the baby needs for proper growth and development are adequate energy, folate, vitamin A, vitamin B6, and iron.2This is when the heart, brain, bones, and placenta are developing.1During this time, there are also several critical periods of development that require a sufficient amount of specific nutrients. If these needs are not met, the baby may miss an important developmental stage and the damage will be difficult to be reversed. An example of this is a baby born with an open neural tube due to insufficient folate intake. In the second and third trimesters, energy needs increase along with protein, carbohydrate, vitamin C, and vitamin D.2This is when the brain, nervous system, muscles, tissues, fat storage, and facial features are developing.2Mothers who breastfeed continue to have increased energy and nutrient requirements in order to maintain breastmilk quantity.
Weight gain during pregnancy is a natural biological process that signifies a healthy pregnancy. Individuals with eating disorders may find this weight gain distressing, however it is important to remember that maintaining a stable weight or losing weight during pregnancy can have detrimental effects on the fetus. Even people who have recovered from an eating disorder may feel triggered during pregnancy. It may be helpful to know that not all of this weight gain is due to increasing fat stores; a lot of it comes from the baby, breast tissue, increased blood volume, uterine muscles, fluid retention, the placenta, and amniotic fluid2. It is common for disordered eating behaviours to emerge after the baby is born.During this time, try to focus on the health and development of your baby, while keeping in mind that breastmilk quantity suffers with inadequate nourishment. Further, celebrate the amazing process of creating and nourishing a child with your strong and powerful body!
There are several potential health risks associated with pregnancy when a woman is living with with an eating disorder. Poor nourishment during pregnancy can cause a woman to experience malnutrition, dehydration, cardiac irregularities, premature birth, labour complications, difficult recovery, difficulties nursing, preeclampsia, increased risk for cesarean birth, and pre/post birth depression.3,4Mothers who do not gain adequate weight during pregnancy can also experience low blood pressure, weakness, fainting episodes, anemia, miscarriage, and/or a complicated delivery.2,5Binge-eating during pregnancy can cause high blood pressure and/or gestational diabetes.2Babies who do not receive adequate nutrition have an increased risk to be born with a low birth weight and have long-term developmental delays.2They can also experience feeding difficulties and respiratory distress.4However, it is possible to have a healthy pregnancy if proper treatment and care is taken prior to and during pregnancy.
Women who struggle with an eating disorder during pregnancy may display some of the following symptoms: food restriction, little to no weight gain, extreme exercise, purging, chronic fatigue, headaches, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, social isolation, depression, and/or anxiety.4Please seek professional help if you or someone you know is experiencing some of these symptoms. Corrective action must be taken immediately to avoid negative consequences for the developing fetus and for the mom.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder and wants to become pregnant, it is very important to see a doctor and a registered dietitian in order to properly prepare the body for pregnancy. Furthermore, being informed about all the expected body changes, possible complications, and common struggles associated with pregnancy is essential for adequate mental preparation. It is also imperative that mom finds a strong support system that can help her when times get tough. Strengthening the body, mind, and environment can help set a woman up for success. Most importantly, mom should try to embrace the natural changes that her body is programmed to go through in order to enjoy the experience and grow a healthy baby.
- Brown, E. J. (2016). Nutrition through the lifecycle: Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
- Fleming, K. (2018). Eating Disorders & Pregnancy. In Centre for Clinical Interventions. Retrieved from: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Mental%20Health%20Professionals/Eating%20Disorders/Eating%20Disorders%20-%20Information%20Sheets/Eating%20Disorders%20Information%20Sheet%20-%2011%20-%20Eating%20Disorders%20and%20Pregnancy.pdf.
- Pregnancy and eating disorders. (2018). In National eating disorders. Retrieved from: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/pregnancy-and-eating-disorders.
- Eating disorders and pregnancy. (2013). In Eating disorder hope.Retrieved from: https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/special-issues/pregnancy.
- Eating disorders & hormones. (2018). In Centre for clinical interventions. Retrieved from: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/~/media E8EFAD2E7A224E708BDDA78998ABC8F0.ashx.