Can anorexia lead to unplanned pregnancy?

A surprising new study explains that even women who don't have regular periods can still conceive

Published November 12, 2010 2:30PM (EST)

A woman who has starved herself to the point of losing her period hardly seems a candidate for pregnancy, planned or otherwise. But a study published in the November issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology finds that anorexics are shockingly at a much higher risk for unplanned pregnancies. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health found that 50 percent of the self-identified anorexics surveyed reported having had an unplanned pregnancy, compared to 19 percent of women without eating disorders. It follows that more anorexics reported having terminated a pregnancy than non-anorexics (24 percent versus 15 percent).

The researchers explain these counter-intuitive findings like so, "The high prevalence of menstrual disturbance has contributed to the (mis)conception that women with anorexia nervosa are unlikely to conceive." In one of the funnier lines ever to be included in the sober press release for a scientific study, lead researcher Cynthia M. Bulik simply says: "Anorexia is not a good contraceptive." You see, just because a woman isn't menstruating doesn't mean she can't get pregnant. The more you know! Somehow that hugely important fact never made it into my high school sex-ed curriculum. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit that at the age of 26 -- having written about women's issues five days a week for the past four years -- this is the first time I've heard it.

The study speculates that it's "possible that absent or irregular menstruation and the belief that menstrual irregularities reduce the risk of conception are associated with reduced adherence to contraception guidelines or instructions, increasing the risk of unplanned pregnancy" -- but that hypothesis still has to be borne out in further research. Regardless, it seems a safe bet to at least begin better educating women, anorexic and otherwise, about the risk of pregnancy even if they aren't menstruating. And, while we're at it, why not add "anorexia" to the list of really, truly, ridiculously ineffective contraception -- right up there with saran wrap, douching and it being your first time.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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