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Pregorexia: Eating disorders and pregnancy

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

Starving for 2

Jenny knew giving into her anorexia while she was pregnant was dangerous, but couldn't seem to help herself. Even after being hospitalized, she couldn't stop endangering herself and her baby. Jenny has pregorexia, and cases like hers are more common than we'd like to believe.
Nervous pregnant woman

Jenny (not her real name) suffered from pregorexia throughout her pregnancy in 2008. She knew it could be bad for the baby, but for some reason, she couldn't force herself to eat.

She began bleeding after only a few weeks of pregnancy. After tests showed her baby was OK, she was released from the hospital, but continued to be the subject of playful ribbing about her eating habits by coworkers (who weren't aware she had an eating disorder), only heightening her anxiety.

Fortunately, Jenny's baby was born healthy. She was one of the lucky ones. Jenny has committed to get help before having another child.

Understanding pregorexia

Many people hear Jenny's story and simply can't understand. "How could a mother endanger her child like that?" they ask. She knows some people think she's a bad mother, but her story isn't as uncommon as people think. We talked to Sharon Zimbler, MFT (marriage and family therapist) for Montecatini, a residence for women struggling with eating disorders, to find out more about the dangers of a rising eating disorder — pregorexia.

SheKnows: Most of our readers have probably never heard of pregorexia. Can you tell us what that is?

Sharon Zimbler: Pregorexia is not a clinical or medical term, but a term that has recently been coined to describe a pregnant woman who is suffering from an eating disorder. The woman may be restricting, overexercising, bingeing or purging. Pregorexia can occur during pregnancy and after the birth of the child.

SK: What causes a woman to suffer from it? What's going on in their heads that they feel it's a bad thing to gain weight during pregnancy? Does it have to do with the overall need to stay thin, or are they thinking about their weight post-pregnancy?

SZ: The woman may have had an eating disorder before she became pregnant that may or may not have been diagnosed. Oftentimes, women who have “disordered eating” or serious body-image issues may find themselves overwhelmed with the weight gain associated with pregnancy. These women may start developing an eating disorder during their pregnancies.

Media and societal influences affect our ideas of what pregnancy should look like. Unfortunately, we are inundated with images of very thin women barely gaining weight during pregnancy, only to find these same women losing their baby weight soon after the birth of their children. Many women find themselves worried about losing their baby weight before they even have their babies.

Women with established eating disorders suffer from cognitive distortions, which affect their ability to perceive themselves accurately. A woman may think she is eating a certain amount, but may actually be eating less than she realizes, or a woman may think she is not overexercising but actually is.

A woman with an eating disorder lacks perspective on her behaviors. Women with eating disorders have a strong need to control things in their lives. They do this by controlling what they eat or don’t eat. They also control whether they keep the food down. Women with pregorexia feel they have lost control over their bodies.

SK: Is a woman who has previously suffered from another eating disorder more likely to suffer from pregorexia? What about the reverse?

SZ: A woman who has had an eating disorder may suffer from pregorexia during pregnancy. Some reports state that 20 percent of pregnant women suffer from eating disorders. However, some women with eating disorders find that pregnancy is a time of remission from their eating disorder. If a woman thinks that she is developing an eating disorder during her pregnancy, most likely she had an eating disorder or other mental disorder prior to becoming pregnant. However, it may not have been diagnosed.

SK: What are the negative effects of pregorexia — dangers to the baby and dangers to mom?

SZ: There are numerous physical and psychological effects of pregorexia to mothers and their babies. A woman may have serious medical and emotional problems during and after the birth of the baby. Doctors say that women with pregorexia are at risk for miscarriage and stillbirth.

Researchers say that babies born to pregorexic mothers can suffer from cognitive problems and learning disabilities.

SK: Eating disorders are a sensitive subject for any woman, so many of us are afraid to confront friends, knowing it could anger them and even ruin a long-time friendship. What are the outward signs of potential pregorexia? If our readers are concerned about a friend, what should they do?

SZ: Some signs a woman may be suffering from pregorexia may include a woman who is talking about the pregnancy as if it weren't real. A woman with pregorexia may be overly focused on calorie counting, may be eating alone, skipping meals or overexercising. If you are concerned about someone you know, talk to her. Encourage her to speak with her doctor and a therapist. Women with eating disorders are notorious for keeping secrets. This is a time when their secrets could not only hurt them but their child.

Could picky eating be an eating disorder? >>

SK: Does that mean watching your weight during pregnancy and continuing to exercise are a bad thing in general? How does a woman know when enough is enough?

SZ: It is important to follow your doctor’s orders during pregnancy. Let your doctor determine if your diet and exercise routine are appropriate. There are also registered dietitians who work with pregnant woman who can help with this too. It is important to consult a professional on all of these issues.

SK: What's the course of treatment for pregorexia? Are OB/GYNs trained to spot the signs? If one of our readers suffers from it, what should they do to get help?

SZ: Women with pregorexia should seek medical attention and seek therapy with someone who specializes in eating disorders. Some doctors are not trained to spot pregorexia, so tell your doctor if you are restricting calories, overexercising, bingeing or purging. Also, tell your doctor if you have ever had an eating disorder. Ask for help and don’t stop asking until you get the help you need.

About Sharon Zimbler, MFT

Sharon Zimlber

Sharon Zimbler received her bachelor of arts degree from Florida International University’s Fine Arts Division. After moving to San Diego from Miami, Zimbler earned her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from the California School of Professional Psychology Division at Alliant International University. She is currently working on her doctorate of psychology in marriage and family therapy. Zimbler has experience working with individuals, couples and families, as well as with group therapy. She also has experience working with substance abuse and eating disorders. In addition, Zimbler worked as a school-based therapist in the Escondido, California, school district, which allowed her to work with high-risk children and their families. Zimbler’s theoretical approaches include family systems theory and the 12-step model of recovery. She uses her knowledge and passion to promote recovery in her community.

More on eating disorders

Eating disorders and dating: Do you tell or keep it a secret?
What is binge eating disorder?
Orthorexia: Is your healthy eating unhealthy?

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