Connection Between Eating Disorders and Infertility

Woman in hat struggling with an Eating Disorder

Contributor: Kelly Kee, MA, LPC, Eating Disorder Specialist, Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

The Power of Nourishment

It is well known that diet (what you eat) and nutrition (what you get from eating) have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to conceive. Nourishing the body appropriately is one of the most powerful health changes a male or female can make in order to improve fertility, prevent miscarriage, and carry out a healthy pregnancy.

Eating a “fertility diet” in preparation for pregnancy is not uncommon and is even what many doctors recommend in order to support the body in its reproductive efforts.

Despite increasing attention to fertility treatments and prenatal care, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 1 million married women ages 15-44 in the United States struggle with infertility. Infertility refers to the inability to achieve pregnancy after one year of trying to conceive.

Due to the correlation between nutritional intake and fertility, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a link between eating disorders and infertility.

Eating disorders are devastating psychiatric illnesses marked by serious disturbances in eating behaviors and/or weight regulation. Although these disorders are associated with a wide range of psychological, physical, and emotional consequences, one significant health impact is damage to the reproductive system.

Couple on the boardwalkRegardless of the type of eating disorder, it is not uncommon for individuals who struggle with an eating disorder or disordered eating tendencies to experience the following complications with reproductive health:

  • Amenorrhea, or an abnormal absence of menstruation
  • Oligomenorrhea, or infrequent menstrual periods
  • Failure to ovulate
  • Low egg or sperm production
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Higher risk of developing Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

In these situations, the reproductive system is noticeably compromised and may increase the likelihood of infertility. In addition to the adverse physical affects of eating disorders, correlates of these disorders such as anxiety, depression, and stress also pose a threat to fertility.

Unfortunately, some individuals who struggle with an eating disorder are not aware of these consequences until they experience problems when trying to conceive.

Important to note is that although conceiving may be more difficult under the conditions mentioned above, it is still possible for those currently struggling with an eating disorder to get pregnant. Findings suggest that women with eating disorders are among the most likely to have unintended pregnancies, perhaps due to the misconception that you cannot ovulate without menstruation.

Those who do conceive while the eating disorder is still ongoing should seek additional support from health care providers immediately in order to reduce maternal and fetal complications.

The Power of Healing

Despite the alarming reproductive health risks that may come from being in the throes of an eating disorder, up to 80% of women who successfully recover from an eating disorder are able to get pregnant. Once recovered, periods can become regular again and fertility problems can linger, which demonstrates the body’s incredible resilience.

Couple in love

By [re]establishing a healthy relationship with food, with the soul, and with the self, the prognosis for pregnancy is much more promising.

Both eating disorders and infertility are conditions that carry an immense amount of shame and social stigma, which may serve as a barrier to reaching out for help.

Being honest with your healthcare providers about your recovery journey is vital when considering parenthood in order to receive appropriate care before, during, and after pregnancy.

It is not uncommon for certain eating disorder related issues to re-emerge, such as body dissatisfaction, or fear of weight gain. On the other hand, for some eating disorder survivors pregnancy can enhance appreciation and a sense of attitude for one’s self and body.


Kelly Kee PhotoAbout the author: Kelly earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from North Central College and was awarded her Master of Arts degree in Counseling from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Kelly spent her practicum year seeing clients at The Family Institute at Northwestern University and went on to complete her internship year at Timberline Knolls with the Eating Disorder Specialist Team. Kelly now works as an Eating Disorder Specialist at Timberline Knolls..

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 2, 2017.
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