Carrie Watts knows science. This 31-year-old chemical engineer is accustomed to tackling complex challenges such as developing a technology to slow down the ripening process in fruits and vegetables. Yet, like many other intelligent women, this Lansdale, Pennsylvania scientist isn't always smart when it comes to her own body.
Watts is bulimic and borderline anorexic. She began struggling with weight issues in her late teens. "I was pretty depressed when I was younger," says Watts. "I always had problems fitting in at school and I was heavier so I went on a diet to lose weight. And I think I just got the overall impression that being thin equals happiness."
A decade and a half later, Watts became pregnant. She had been working on her recovery but binged and purged about a dozen times during her first pregnancy. "I was devastated," she recalls. "When you're bulimic, you feel guilty about what you do. You just feel awful about yourself. And it's double-time worse when you have a baby inside because not only did you just hurt yourself, now you're hurting a little innocent baby."
The Eating Disorder We Don't Hear About
Eating disorder stories about pregnant women don't garner the headlines that those about Mary-Kate Olsen do. But the stories are out there. In her book, America's Queen: The Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, biographer Sarah Bradford describes how both Jackie O and her sister, Lee Radziwill, dieted "rigorously" during their pregnancies. Bradford reports that Lee delivered daughter Christina three months early, and the baby weighed just two-and-a-half pounds.
There are no statistics quantifying just how many pregnant women suffer from an eating disorder, but by reading between the lines of the existing data, we can surmise that many women are still affected by one well into their childbearing years. According to a poll from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), seven million women suffer from an eating disorder. Many of the women ANAD surveyed started exhibiting symptoms in their teens or twenties, and three quarters reported that their disorder lasted anywhere from one to fifteen years.
Millions of other women don't fit the clinical criteria for an eating disorder but display some of the symptoms. And then there are those of us who are just plain worried about our weight and appearance—80 percent of the female population, according to one study often quoted by the National Eating Disorders Association.
So the substantial weight gain associated with pregnancy can be a terrifying experience for just about any woman. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that women gain 25-35 pounds during pregnancy, a little more if the woman starts out underweight, a little less if she's overweight.