Pregorexia: When Worrying About Weight Gain During Pregnancy Goes Too Far

Worried about weight gain? Find out if your attempts to manage your pregnancy weight are too extreme.
Pregnant woman on scale

Image Source/ Veer

Gaining weight during pregnancy is important for the health of your baby -- all those extra pounds go toward ensuring your little one has plenty of nutrients to grow. But for the average woman, strapping on three and a half gallons of milk (that's what the recommended weight gain of 30 pounds looks like) can seem like a ton of extra weight. If you're feeling a little shocked by the numbers on the scale lately, you're in good company. And if you've considered -- even for a second -- changing your eating habits to slow that gain down, you're not alone either.

"It's normal for a pregnant woman to be surprised by her weight gain -- it can feel like a lot in a short amount of time," says Maggie Baumann, M.F.T., C.E.D.S., a psychotherapist based in Newport Beach, California, who specializes in supporting those with eating disorders. "It becomes an issue when she tries to control how much she gains by restricting calories, vomiting, or excessively exercising," Baumann says.

Sadly, a small percentage of women do take the weight-gain worry too far, and engage in extreme dieting techniques to try to control their size. Even more disconcerting is that many of those women don't realize they have a problem, or they feel ashamed by it, and aren't able to seek help. "We live in a society that is trending toward obesity, and many health-care professionals are more concerned with identifying women who are gaining too much weight during pregnancy," says Kathleen M. Rasmussen, Sc.D., R.D., professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, who was part of the committee at the Institute of Medicine who released the report Weight Gain During Pregnancy: Reexamining the Guidelines. Pregnant women who are developing eating disorders may not be on their doctors' radar.

"A clinical diagnosis would be anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, and one or both of these can be present in pregnant women who are fixated on controlling their weight," Baumann says.

Anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder characterized by a distorted body image and an exaggerated fear of becoming fat, which can lead to an obsession with calorie intake and restriction and extreme efforts to lose weight; bulimia is typically marked by a binge-purge habit, in which a person consumes a large amount of food and then vomits, exercises excessively, or uses laxatives to rid the body of the extra calories. It's not likely, however, that pregnancy is a direct cause of either condition.

"Most pregnant women suffering from anorexia or bulimia have been dealing with eating disorder -- like behaviors, knowingly or unknowingly, for some time," Baumann explains. It's possible that feeling out of control during pregnancy might trigger underlying tendencies of disordered eating, "but if those tendencies exist, they were there before conception," Baumann says, speaking from experience -- she battled anorexia during both of her pregnancies in the 1980s, and considers herself lucky to have two happy, healthy daughters today.

You can thank the Internet for the rise in pregorexia, a term coined by journalists for the phenomenon. Internet photos of slender celebrities who gain no more than a basketball-bump during pregnancy, and social media, where there's pressure to share perfect "no filter" selfies, can make women who gain more weight feel inadequate.

"Women can be hard on each other," Baumann says. "They're made to feel ashamed for both gaining too much and too little during pregnancy." And social media can heighten that -- just look at the range of comments on a recent Facebook photo that went viral of a young mom in a sports bra and tiny shorts, surrounded by her babies with the title "What's Your Excuse?" The situation on Twitter and Instagram isn't much better. There, women seek virtual high-fives for still looking skinny with a bun in the oven: Messages like "Belly is big. Rest of me isn't!" are common.

As light as posts and tweets can seem, the situation is serious. "Women who are underweight when they conceive, and those who don't gain a healthy amount of baby weight during pregnancy, have a higher risk of delivering a preterm or low-birthweight baby," Rasmussen says. "This can cause problems for the baby at birth and later in life, including respiratory, cardiovascular, and digestive issues." Moms are putting their own heath on the line too. Anorexia nervosa has been linked to an increased risk of heart attack, and bulimia can lead to erosion of the esophagus and other severe digestive problems.

The best way to stop worrying about pregnancy weight gain? Relax, and know that your body changes are happening for a really good reason -- and that they're not permanent. Yes, your boobs are swelling up and your butt has never been bigger, but this is to support the new life growing inside of you. It's okay to give yourself a break from looking perfect to enjoy the miracle of life. Step away from Facebook and share this magical time with the people you love in the real world -- because, after all, they will "like" you no matter what size you and your baby end up.

If you would like more information or help dealing with an eating disorder, speak with your ob-gyn about counseling and therapy options. Or contact Maggie Baumann (Maggie-Baumann@cox.net) to learn more about "Lift the Shame," her confidential online support group for pregnant women and moms.

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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