Midlife Eating Disorders

Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC

 

Eating disorders are stereotypically associated with teenage girls or young women. To be fair, this presumption is based in some truth. Prevalence of eating disorders are twice as high among women as men, with the average age of onset being between 18 and 21 (Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2010).

While it is important to be aware of the facts, it is also important to engage in a discussion about what is not being talked about. The truth is, very little research has been done to understand eating disorders that occur in mid-life (an age range generally considered to be between 35 to 55 years). But the fact is that many people start to worry about their weight and shape as they age. This can lead to preoccupation with diet, exercise and body image.

 

Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge-eating disorder are fairly easy to identify and diagnose based on the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-V (DSM-V).

However, there are an overwhelming amount of people who fall short of meeting these criteria but still experience an unhealthy relationship with food and weight. The common thread between “eating disorders” and “disordered eating” can be thought of as a preoccupation with size and weight, diet, and exercise that causes emotional and/or physical distress.

It is important to consult with your doctor for a proper assessment and diagnosis of your specific health concerns. However, for the purposes simplicity, the term “eating disorders” in this blog post will also include subtler forms of disordered eating.

 

Signs and Symptoms of Midlife Eating Disorders

Specifically, the symptoms commonly associated with both disordered eating and eating disorders in middle aged adults include, but are not limited to:

  • restricting food or calories
  • spending excessive amounts of time in the grocery store checking ingredient or nutrition labels
  • frequently consuming large amounts of food in one sitting
  • getting stuck in a cycle of restricting during the day and overeating at night
  • purging (vomiting, excessive exercise or through use of diuretics and/or laxatives)
  • comparing current size/weight to one’s lowest adult weight (i.e. as a teenager)
  • feeling guilt or shame about gaining weight or losing muscle tone
  • avoiding seeing people from one’s past due to embarrassment about weight gain

 

Causes

Eating disorders aren’t exclusively motivated by a desire to “look better” during the aging process. Eating disorders often function partly as a coping mechanism, as they give people the illusion that they have control over something in an environment where they feel they otherwise do not. The restriction of food, or overeating for comfort, can provide a sense of solace and relief.

The emergence (or re-emergence) of an eating disorders can be caused by a variety of stressors that are unique to midlife, including:

  • hormonal changes
  • marriage issues (divorce or infidelity)
  • caring for aging parents
  • grief and bereavement (due to the death of a parent, spouse or friend)
  • job dissatisfaction
  • financial strain

 

Treatment

Treatment for eating disorders usually requires a multi-faceted approach.

Consultation with a medical professional is a good place to start. It is important to screen for risk factors associated with eating disorders such as:

  • osteoporosis
  • electrolyte imbalances
  • blood sugar abnormalities
  • anemia

Recovery from eating disorders also requires treatment for mental health. As mentioned earlier, eating disorders co-occur with negative thought patterns, control, perfectionism and maladaptive coping skills.

The mental health professional can help individuals:

  • identify the underlying reasons for the eating disorder
  • increase awareness of negative thought patterns and emotions that perpetuate behaviors
  • practice self-acceptance and self-compassion instead of self-punishment
  • identify triggers and learn techniques to navigate them in a more effective manner

 

Get Support

Above all, treatment will allow individuals who struggle with eating disorders to discover strengths and new skills that will help them to cope effectively with the challenges that arise in life. If you feel that you need extra support, seeking mental health treatment can be immensely helpful in providing lasting relief.

 

 

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