4 things to know about a pregnancy eating disorder

Although pregorexia or pregnancy anorexia is rare, this is a real disorder that requires serious attention.

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Most women shudder at the thought of putting on massive amounts of weight during their pregnancy. Excessive weight gain not only means that you’ll frequently be asked if you’re carrying multiples, but also because all that baby weight is going to take forever to come off post-delivery.

The good news is that many pregnant mums-to-be make sure to gain weight healthily, by watching what they eat and staying active. However, there are a small number of women who tend to obsess over their weight gain. These women not only cut their food intake, claiming that it’s extra and unnecessary calories, they hit the gym compulsively.

“This could be a sign of pregorexia or anorexia in pregnancy, where women try to control or reduce weight gain during pregnancy by extreme dieting and at times, extreme exercising,” notes SmartParents expert Dr Christopher Chong, an obstetrician-gynaecologist at Gleneagles Hospital. “They act as if the pregnancy is not existent, at times keeping to themselves and trying to skip meals or doing extreme exercising and obsessive counting of calories.”

A pregorexic mother has a high chance of giving birth to a baby with underdeveloped organs and lifelong health problems.

In the UK, 7.6 per cent of pregnant women in a study displayed symptoms of an eating disorder. That said, Dr Chong has never treated a patient with pregorexia in his decades-long career as a gynae in Singapore. Still, he keeps a lookout for this condition, which can have serious effects on both mummy and baby.

A pregorexic mother has a high chance of giving birth to a baby with underdeveloped organs and lifelong health problems. In some cases, the foetus can also end up dying in the womb from lack of nutrition.

So, if Dr Chong has the slightest inclination that his patient might be heading down that road, he will gently advise them about the need for proper nutrition and a healthy weight gain for a good pregnancy.

“I will also involve the family, especially the spouse and suggest joining pregnancy groups, so she can share her pregnancy experiences and learn healthy pregnancy practices,” adds Dr Chong.

While rare, pregorexia is a body image disorder that can have harmful consequences for both mummy and baby. Here are four facts to know about this pregnancy health issue that has potentially harmful side effects.

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#1 It’s a legitimate problem and should be taken seriously

The term pregorexia was coined by the media and in many health care circles, it isn’t even uniformly recognised as a medical problem. In Asian societies like ours, we’re more concerned that pregnant women will take “eating for two” too far and end up piling on the pounds. If you’re at a healthy weight pre-pregnancy, doctors advise that you put on 11kg to 15kg during your entire pregnancy. Overweight women should gain 8kg to 12kg max, while underweight women should aim for an additional 13kg to 18kg. So, if you or a pregnant friend of yours is not meeting the weight gain goals, it could be a sign of pregorexia. If you don’t want to jump the gun, Dr Chong advises that you look out for other accompanying symptoms, such as being reclusive, feeling depressed, counting calories at every meal or choosing to eat alone.

“Sometimes, pregorexia can also be fuelled by a difficult pregnancy, family problems or depression.”

#2 It increases your risk of having a late-term miscarriage

Your chances of having a miscarriage, especially in the first trimester, are between 15 and 20 per cent. However, your risk factor increases when you have an eating disorder while preggers. And this miscarriage can even occur in the later stages of your pregnancy. “The lack of nutrition is unhealthy and will affect your body’s metabolic function. It can cause low blood sugar and subsequent fainting, plus results in poor growth of baby, miscarriage or still birth,” warns Dr Chong. Even if baby survives the pregnancy, he or she is in for a lifetime of health issues as they are at higher risk for poor growth, poor organ development, low birth weight, foetal distress, respiratory distress, anaemia, jaundice, premature birth or weak bones and teeth structure.

#3 You’re at greater risk if you had an eating disorder previously

It’s no surprise that women who’ve had a history of eating disorders are more likely to relapse when they fall pregnant. This is especially true if they haven’t fully worked through the issues that caused them to develop an eating disorder in the first place. “These patients are more likely to be very affected by their weight, especially for those who are not mentally prepared for bodily changes and weight gain,” notes Dr Chong. “Many may still have underlying psychiatric and psychological problems.” That said, women who have never had an eating disorder can also develop pregorexia, especially if they entered the pregnancy with unrealistic expectations about gaining weight and their bodily changes. “Sometimes, pregorexia can also be fuelled by a difficult pregnancy, family problems or depression,” adds Dr Chong. By the way, if the depression is not dealt with during pregnancy, it could trickle over to the post-partum phase and contribute to postnatal depression.

#4 You have treatment options

Pregorexia is difficult to diagnose, since people are usually quick to dismiss it as a woman who is just being overly-conscious of her weight ― which many of us are. Even if you know someone who displays such symptoms, it’s a delicate topic to approach. Plus, it’s one that can be hidden quite easily by the pregorexic person, until it’s too late. The first step to healing is to admit that you have a problem with your body image. It’s important you do that as soon as possible as every minute you continue punishing your body in that manner, you are also punishing your unborn child. Once you’re ready to acknowledge you have an issue, help is readily available. A two-pronged approach first helps you address your emotional problems with the help of a psychiatrist or psychologist. If the situation is serious, Dr Chong says you will most likely be admitted in the hospital to help manage and monitor your eating habits. Otherwise, you can consult a nutritionist or dietitian, who will keep a close eye on your nutrition and advise you on how to improve your diet. It’s a slow and careful process, but pregorexia is a condition you can overcome and manage as long as you have a strong support system and get help sooner rather than later.

Photos: iStock

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