What is Pregorexia?

woman with pregorexia

Pregorexia is a modern term used to describe the presence of anorexia-like symptoms in pregnant women. Women with the disorder have an excessive fear of pregnancy-related weight gain and use various methods, including extreme exercise routines and calorie restriction, to avoid the weight increases that mark the course of a normal, healthy pregnancy. Potential consequences of these behaviors include pregnancy complications, premature childbirth and a variety of health conditions associated with an unusually low child birthweight.

Pregorexia Basics

Women need to gain weight during pregnancy in order to provide enough nutrients to support the growth and health of their developing children. Normally, a woman expecting a single baby will safely gain anywhere from roughly 11 to 40 pounds during the course of a pregnancy. A woman expecting a multiple birth can potentially gain significantly greater amounts of weight. In addition to the number of expected children, the precise recommended amount of pregnancy-related weight gain varies according to factors that include the pre-pregnancy weight of the mother, the mother’s overall health and the health of the developing child.

Women with pregorexia have extreme difficulty separating the need to physically support the health of their developing children from the internalized and social demands to remain thin and attractive. Eventually, concerns about body image override any pregnancy-related health concerns and the pregorexic woman takes steps to minimize or avoid any potential for significant weight gain. Pregorexia is relatively rare, according to the Mayo Clinic. The American Psychiatric Association does not officially recognize the condition as a distinct eating disorder; instead, it includes pregorexia in a catch-all category of poorly or partially defined ailments known as “eating disorders not otherwise specified,” or EDNOS.

Pregorexia Causes

Women with pregorexia have many similarities to women who have the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, also known simply as anorexia. Common features of the two conditions include an extreme or irrational fear of gaining weight, an unusual and unhealthy restriction on daily calorie intake, and an unusual or excessive devotion to various forms of exercise. Some women with pregorexia have a pre-existing history of anorexia or other eating disorders, while others develop problems only after becoming pregnant. Known potential factors in the onset of anorexia and other eating disorders include a culture that emphasizes thinness as a physical ideal, a family environment that emphasizes thinness, a family history of eating disorders, experience of rape or other forms of extreme physical trauma, stressful events such as moving or taking a new job, and biological factors such as hormonal or chemical imbalances and genetic predisposition.

Pregorexia Signs and Symptoms

A pregorexic woman will typically fail to meet the weight gain goals that normally mark advancing stages of pregnancy. Other warning signs for the presence of the disorder include behaviors such as skipping meals, placing a heavy or continuous emphasis on calorie counting, eating meals alone, discussing a pregnancy in a detached or unrealistic manner, and exercising heavily even in adverse situations or surroundings.

Potential Pregorexia Consequences

Pregorexia can trigger changes in a woman’s body that lead to abnormal uterine bleeding, an increased chance of experiencing a miscarriage, increased risks for poor fetal development, an increased chance of delivering a baby prematurely, and abnormally low birthweight. The March of Dimes lists known potential consequences of low birthweight that include bleeding in the brain, a breathing disorder called respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), a vision disorder called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), an intestinal disorder called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), and a heart condition called patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). Pregnancy-related problems linked to eating disorders in general include higher rates of extended or difficult labor, higher rates of Caesarian births and higher rates of breech births.

Pregorexia Treatment

Women with pregorexia typically require treatment that addresses both the physical problems of inadequate weight gain during pregnancy and the mental and emotional difficulties that come with the presence of an eating disorder. The specific course of treatment varies from person to person. Some women have serious physical problems that take precedence over any other immediate concerns, while others have mental and emotional problems that may require priority care. Professionals who commonly play a role in recovery from pregorexia include obstetricians, gynecologists, psychotherapists and nutritionists. If you or a loved show signs or symptoms of pregorexia, seek the advice of a primary care physician who can direct you to the appropriate treatment resources.

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