One in 14 women suffer from an eating disorder during the first three months of their pregnancy, a perturbing University College London (UCL) study reveals. According to the study’s findings, 1 in 4 pregnant women were ‘highly concerned about their weight and shape’.

The researchers also found that 2.3 percent of the study participants regularly engaged in harmful compensatory behaviours such as extreme dieting, fasting, exercising obsessively, inducing vomiting and misusing laxatives or diuretics in an attempt to prevent pregnancy weight gain.

Binge eating during pregnancy appeared even more common with 1 in 12 women (8.8 percent) reporting that they would gorge themselves and feel unable to control what they ate twice a week.

The impact of eating disorders on mother and baby

‘There is good evidence from our research that eating disorders in pregnancy can affect both the mother and the developing baby,’ declared study lead author, Dr Nadia Micali, from the UCL Institute of Child Health.

Restricting food intake and over-exercising during pregnancy can hinder the normal growth and development of the foetus, increasing the risk that the baby will be born with a low birth weight. This could make the child more vulnerable to a host of short-term and long-term complications.

Malnutrition in the womb also predisposes the baby to developmental delays, learning disabilities and mood disorders. And abusing laxatives, diuretics and medications while pregnant can lead to foetal abnormalities.

Mothers who binge during pregnancy will often gain excessive weight — this increases their risks for gestational diabetes and hypertension. These women are also more likely to give birth to heavy babies predisposing the child to obesity, diabetes and other complications later in life.

Moreover, previous studies have linked eating disorders to premature labour, stillbirth or foetal death, increased risks of complicated deliveries, miscarriage, pre-eclampsia and depression.

Because of all these detrimental effects on the mother’s health and that of her baby, the researchers urge health practitioners to screen women for eating disorders during the very first antenatal check-up.

Study details

The study published in the European Eating Disorders Review involved 739 women attending their first antenatal scan. The participants were asked to anonymously fill in a questionnaire designed using an adapted version of the Eating Disorder Diagnostic Scale (EDDS). The survey aimed at investigating the eating habits of these women six to 12 months before they got pregnant as well as the prevalence of eating disorder symptoms among pregnant women during their first trimester.

Eating disorders during pregnancy often remain untreated

Dr Abigail Easter, also from the UCL Institute of Child Health, explained that ‘women with eating disorders are often reluctant to disclose their illness to healthcare professionals, possibly due to a fear of stigma or fear that health services might respond in a negative way’.

She added that ‘typical pregnancy symptoms such as weight gain and vomiting can also mask the presence of an eating disorder. Many women with eating disorders may therefore go undetected and untreated during pregnancy.’

For their own well-being and that of their baby, pregnant women are strongly advised to inform their doctors if they ever had an eating disorder or if they are restricting calories, exercising excessively, bingeing or purging.

This study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research.


    Easter et al (2013) Recognising the symptoms: how common are eating disorders in pregnancy? Eur Eat Disord Rev. 21(4):340-344.