What is a Midlife Eating Disorder?



Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC


National Eating Disorder Awareness week (NEDAW) is observed each year during the last week in February. During my time in high school, this “awareness” typically looked like some well-intentioned student organization plastering triggering images of “textbook anorexic” models in the girls’ bathroom. Although perspectives on eating-disorders have become more progressive, there is still much this is misunderstood by the general public.

Eating disorders are stereotypically assumed to only affect teenage girls or young women. To be fair, this assumption 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. 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

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 of Midlife Eating Disorders

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, giving 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 for Midlife Eating Disorders

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

Long-term 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 techniques to navigate them in a more effective manner

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.



Seeking Mental Health Support

Recovery from an eating disorder of any kind requires the help of a mental health professional.  Scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center may be the first step in this journey. Meet our team to learn more.


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