Anorexia is a serious eating disorder that can affect a woman and her child during pregnancy. Learn the risks and treatment of anorexia during pregnancy.

Anorexia is a serious eating disorder that can be difficult to treat. For women who struggle with anorexia during pregnancy, the situation is even more serious as the health of the mother and baby can be negatively affected by an eating disorder. However, the physical changes that come with pregnancy can worsen existing concerns about weight gain, resulting in additional stress.

For mothers-to-be, struggling with anorexia while pregnant can impact physical and mental health, making it difficult to function and stay healthy during pregnancy. Anorexia can also make it hard to provide enough nutrients to a growing fetus and can negatively influence the growth and development of the baby. The health of the mother and baby are extremely important at this time and should be closely monitored by medical professionals.

How Does Anorexia Affect Pregnancy?

Anorexia can affect pregnancy in many ways, starting with the chances of falling pregnant. Rates of unplanned pregnancy tend to be higher in women with anorexia. This result can be due to interactions between eating disorder behaviors and the effectiveness of some birth control, or due to irregular periods and uncertainty around fertility.

If a woman with anorexia becomes pregnant, it can be hard to meet the energy needs of both the mother and baby. Although many women understand their child requires nourishment, their disorder can make it difficult for them to put this into action.

Other effects of anorexia on pregnancy can include:

  • Weak fetal growth or developmental periods
  • Low energy, fainting
  • Nutrient deficiencies

Beyond the physical effects of anorexia on pregnancy, it can also be extremely hard on mental health. Women may feel guilty, anxious or out of control of their eating behaviors.

Anorexia and Pregnancy Complications

Symptoms of anorexia can continue or even worsen during pregnancy. Anorexia can increase the risk of pregnancy complications. Restricted calorie intake and fewer essential nutrients can impact a child’s growth and development and can make carrying a healthy baby to term challenging.

Some of the complications that can occur in pregnancy include:

  • Miscarriage: Anorexia can increase the risk of miscarriage during pregnancy. Spotting while pregnant can be a sign of miscarriage and women who experience this should seek medical attention immediately.
  • Birth defects: Certain birth defects are more common in pregnant women with a history of anorexia.
  • Trouble conceiving: A history of anorexia or current anorexia can impact conception since eating disorders can impact certain hormones and the menstrual cycle.

Pregnancy complications related to anorexia can be anxiety-inducing for women. The support of doctors and other health professionals can help provide monitoring and advice for a safe pregnancy.

Statistics on Anorexia During Pregnancy

Anorexia can be a private illness. Many women suffer in silence. Because of this characteristic, it can be hard to know exactly how many women struggle with anorexia during pregnancy. However, approximately 0.9% of women in the United States met the criteria for an anorexia diagnosis, many of whom are in their childbearing years.

While only around 1% of pregnant women receive a diagnosis of a major eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, this number is higher if factors like restricting food or pica are included.

Interestingly, anorexia and pregnancy statistics show how pregnancy impacts an eating disorder can vary from woman to woman. For some women, pregnancy weight gain can make anorexia symptoms worse. For others, anxiety symptoms can improve during pregnancy as a result of worrying about the impact on the baby.

Finding Treatment for Anorexia

Treatment for anorexia usually requires a combination of psychological therapy and nutrition counseling. In severe cases, this might require inpatient or residential treatment. While there are no set guidelines for the treatment of anorexia, it usually involves addressing underlying reasons for disordered weight gain, assessing nutritional deficiencies and re-learning eating behaviors.

Ideally, treatment for anorexia should happen before a woman becomes pregnant. However, this is not always possible and there are still many options available to support women with anorexia throughout their pregnancy. Treatment for anorexia during pregnancy can help the mother’s mental health during pregnancy. Treatment from medical professionals also provides support for the mother’s physical health and the health of her baby.

Treatment for anorexia during pregnancy is different than it would usually be. The treatment team should include a maternal health specialist like an obstetrician, a psychiatrist, a dietitian and any other professional that may be appropriate. Treatment often includes motivational interviewing or cognitive behavioral therapy.

Women struggling with anorexia can have healthy families, and pregnancy may also be an opportunity to seek treatment and support for disordered eating.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Sarah Dash, PHD
Dr. Sarah Dash is a postdoctoral research fellow based in Toronto. Sarah completed her PhD in Nutritional Psychiatry at the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in 2017. Read more

Bulik, Cynthia; et al. “Unplanned pregnancy in women with anorexia nervosa.” Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2010. Accessed September 19, 2019.

Ekéus, C.; et al. “Birth outcomes and pregnancy complicatio[…]of anorexia nervosa.” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 2006. Accessed September 19, 2019.

Ward, Veronica Bridget. “Eating disorders in pregnancy.” BMJ, 2006. Accessed September 19, 2019.

Saloua, Kouba; et al. “Pregnancy and Neonatal Outcomes in Women[…]th Eating Disorders.” Obstetrics & Gynecology, February 2005. Accessed September 21, 2019.

Hoffman, Elizabeth R; et al. “Reproductive issues in anorexia nervosa.” Expert Review of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 2011. Accessed September 21, 2019.

Cardwell, Michael. “Eating disorders during pregnancy.” Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey, 2013. Accessed September 21, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.