Back when I was in high school and college, before there was a name for it, many girls around me resorted to what I then thought of as odd behaviors around food. They’d eat about week’s worth of cookies, candy”just about anything teeming with sugar, calories and super-sweetness”all in one sitting. They’d talk incessantly about their weight; how fat they felt, how they hated so-and-so because she was blessed with a naturally skinny body, how they couldn’t fit into their too-tight jeans. They’d eat nothing for days”and then eat endlessly. They’d gather in the bathroom after a particularly substantial eating binge and purge themselves of all their poisons, only to return to the same routine the very next day.
I suppose I didn’t give much thought to that puzzling behavior in those days, shrugging it off and accepting it, in what was a popularly no-care attitude summed up in one word: whatever.
It wasn’t until junior year when my emaciated college roommate, who was part of this food-and-body-focused gang, left college mid-semester and was hospitalized that I realized this was a real”and widespread”medical emergency. And then, years later, words”and shockingly emaciated girls”seemed to be all around me. Aha, I thought. So that’s what it was all about. Anorexia. Bulimia. Eating disorders.
The upside of growing older, I like to think, is leaving adolescent, attention-seeking, insecure and unhealthy behaviors behind, having outgrown them and/or figured them out. What’s upsetting is that I’m woefully mistaken (and perhaps a bit too optimistic).
The more I age and struggle with it, the more I realize that while we can strive for liberation from the woes of our younger years, it’s not always possible to break away and achieve complete freedom from them.
To prove my point, last week, a report about eating disorders and women over 50 came out. While many think that eating disorders are the product of teenage girls, a new study proves otherwise: many women over 50 engage in this unhealthful practice.
The report was published June 21 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, and the statistics reported by women over 50 are alarming (1,849 women participated in the online survey):
- Almost 4 percent report binge eating
- Nearly 8 percent report purging
- More than 70 percent diet to lose weight
- 62 percent say their weight or shape adversely impacts their lives
In their continued quest to control their weight, women’s unhealthy behaviors involved diet pills, excessive exercise, diuretics, laxatives and vomiting.
So why these growing and disturbing numbers? Is it the stress put upon us by society’s standards for thinness and youth? Our fast-paced lives, which leave little time to eat right? Excessive commercialism of food?
Marsha Hudnall, a registered dietitian and owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run in Vermont, the nation’s oldest weight management retreat, says that excessive concern about eating and body size is a hallmark of eating disorders. If you spend a lot of time worrying about whether what you eat will result in weight gain, or whether what you eat will help you lose weight, you already have an eating disorder or are in danger of developing one. (To me, there’s a dangerously fine line between being aware of what you put in your mouth and this.) Further complicating things is the confusion about how to eat well in a food environment that predisposes to obesity, she adds.
It’s understandable that women would fall prey to disordered eating and eating disorders, says Hudnall. “There’s that inability to measure up to the image that defines success and beauty, which is what we all strive for. Being unacceptable, whether in our own or others’ minds, then leads to feelings of insecurity, worthlessness, defeat”those painful issues that underlie eating disorders.”
Our bodies, ourselves: can’t we just get along?
One way to move past all this is to accept and respect that all of us cannot be thin. Hudnall offers some sage advice here. Respect your natural self and do your best at keeping yourself healthy. Eating and food can be pleasurable, but it doesn’t have to take up all of your time and attention. You can learn how to eat to satisfy your individual nutritional needs and at the same time support your natural systems.
The practice of self-compassion can be tough at times. We need to remind ourselves to be mindful and in touch with our emotions and our bodies. Hudnall suggests this: “Place your hands over your heart and say this to yourself: ‘In this moment, may I be kind to myself and my body.'” It takes just a moment out of your day”but in that moment, it can change your direction and head you toward a better place.
“Strikingly, things are as bad in this age group as they are in the younger age groups. I was sort of gobsmacked that 8% reported purging in the last five years,” says researcher Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program, in Chapel Hill.
Additionally, Bulik says, 3.5% of women older than 50 reported binge eating within the last month, a percentage that is “spot on for the younger population.”
Sixty-two percent of the nearly 1,900 women who participated in the Internet-based survey said their weight or shape negatively impacted their life. “That’s really sad,” Bulik says.
Experts who were not involved in the research said the study is valuable because it supports earlier work suggesting that eating disorders are a problem across the lifespan.
Very little work has been conducted to understand eating pathology in older women who may have unique needs in relation to developing and maintaining a healthy body image and healthy approach to weight regulation,” Pamela Keel, PhD, a professor and clinical psychologist who specializes in treating eating disorders at Florida State University in Tallahassee, says in an email to Healthinfi.
Many in Their 50s Are Battling Eating Disorders for the First Time
In some cases, women with eating disorders in mid-life have struggled with their weight and body image before and are relapsing after a period of recovery.
But in many cases, Bulik says, women are bingeing, purging, exercising for hours, or not eating enough for the first time in their lives.
“Part of that is ’70 is the new 50,'” she says. “We have to keep our body looking 20 years younger than it actually is, and that’s an enormous amount of pressure for these women. That’s what sort of puts them on this slippery slope. They see the distance between what’s happening to themselves, their body and the societal ideal, and then they start engaging in really unhealthy weight control practices,” Bulik says.
The average age of study participants was 59, and 92% were white.
About a third of women reported spending at least half their time in the last five years dieting.
Other weight control methods reported in the study included:
- Diet pills (7.5%)
- Excessive exercise (7%)
- Diuretics (2.5%)
- Laxatives (2%)
- Vomiting (1%)
Based on their BMI, 1.6% were underweight, a symptom indicative of anorexia.
Eating Disorders May Be Harder on Older Bodies
Though she doesn’t yet have research to back this up, Bulik thinks eating disorders may be more damaging when they occur later in life.
“Eating disorders take a terrible toll on someone’s body,” she says. “Older bodies are less resilient.”
To compound that problem, many clinicians don’t recognize the symptoms of eating disorders in older women, or they chalk up symptoms like missing periods to natural changes like menopause.
“There’s some stereotype erasure that we have to do,” she says. “We have to change the picture in our minds of who gets these things.”