Although eating disorders are commonly stereotyped as an affliction among younger individuals, these illnesses can occur at any age.
In fact, recent research published by The North American Menopause Society finds that middle-aged adults can become particularly vulnerable to eating disorders—seen in how these conditions are prevalent across perimenopausal and pre-menopausal women. This is because feelings of body dissatisfaction and a fear of weight gain can lead to the consumption of diet food or other weight control behaviours. Concerningly, menopause is only one of several factors that can result in the dysregulated eating behaviours of middle-aged women; others include emotional eating during stressful times, such as ageing and existential crisis.
Below, this article will offer a more in-depth discussion of why eating disorders can manifest in midlife, as well as helpful ways to prevent such outcomes.
What are the unique stressors at midlife that can contribute to eating disorders?
Midlife is a stage that can come with new challenges, and as such, its subsequent stressors can increase the risk of developing eating disorders. Case in point, a study by the American Psychological Association reveals that there’s a high prevalence of eating disorders in older adults, which is related to changes in life roles. As the study’s participants transitioned from their 20s to their 50s, shifts in educational, marital, and parental status invited a slew of problems that affected their eating habits and how they viewed their weight.
On the other hand, issues with body image—which is a typical characteristic of eating disorders—may become intricate with age. Older women may be influenced by how society and media have skewed beauty standards towards an image of youthful thinness. Similarly, an article posted by The Aging Male discusses how men are directed towards having a muscular physique reminiscent of their youth. This usually requires them to reduce fat content and increase muscle tissue, which can consequently result in food binges, purging, and restrictive eating.
Given the problematic eating patterns that can occur in midlife, it becomes vital to equip individuals with the right therapeutic interventions that can promote healthy dietary habits.
How can you prevent the risks of developing eating disorders?
Enlist help from medical professionals
One of the most effective ways to impede dysregulated eating behaviours is to enlist help from medical professionals. At present, several organizations, such as the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, can provide you with resources, support, and treatment options. Notably, a 2020 Everyday Health feature on ‘Key Facts About Eating Disorders in Midlife’ points out that there are also family-based health interventions for middle-aged couples who want to overcome the condition together. The University of North Carolina (UNC) Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders in Chapel Hill utilizes a cognitive behavioural couples therapy approach that can assist you in your recovery journey. The program focuses on changing unhelpful thoughts and behaviours about food and motivating you and your loved one to adhere to your treatment plan.
Avoid food restrictions
According to a 2022 Harvard Health article titled ‘Eating disorders in midlife’, most older adults have dieted at some point in their lives. Usually, this entailed calorie restriction and binge-purge cycles, which not only led to eating disorders but resulted in worsened health effects as well. Continuing to follow food restrictions, all so you can lose weight, can be detrimental to overcoming an eating disorder. Thankfully, sustainable weight loss programs promote eating the right meal portions and upping your intake of nutritional powerhouses. By consuming more eggs, fruits, and veggies, you can provide your body with the right amount of vitamins and minerals it needs while also making space to indulge in your favourite treats. Not having to impose certain food restrictions on your diet allows you to develop a healthier relationship with food.
Practice meditation to circumvent feelings of anxiety
According to a 2022 Frontiers report titled ‘Mental health aspects of binge eating disorder’, binge episodes are often accompanied by feelings of anxiety and depression. The study participants, who were within the age range of 37 to 44, mentioned that they consumed large amounts of food to cope with depression or regulate stress and mood. If you’re finding it hard to circumvent feelings of anxiety, then consider using meditation apps. Many even provide general guided meditations and sleep-specific meditation that can help reduce depressive symptoms. By making the effort to improve your mental well-being, you can likewise lessen your risk for eating disorders.
Eating disorders aren’t confined to a certain age group, and as such, it’s important to understand the factors that can lead you to develop these illnesses.