Eating Disorders Over 50

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.

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