Body Image and Eating Disorders at Midlife & Beyond
“Eating disorders are a teenage girl disease” – A common and incorrect belief.
There exists a stigma around eating disorders (EDs) in our society that there is a “look” to those who are struggling with an ED. And while there is a small percentage of individuals who do fit that stigma, there are far more who don’t.
The look of an eating disorder can be virtually anything, any gender, any size, any ethnicity, any income level, and any age. Unfortunately, too many individuals who are struggling with eating disorder behaviours later in life are missed and invalidated in their struggles because of this skewed perspective of the illness.
In adults, an eating disorder can be a recurrence of eating disorder behaviours that originated decades earlier or could be a worsening of disordered eating patterns over time. Eating disorders at midlife or later can also present as brand new.
An eating disorder is not caused by any one thing. We know that eating disorders are multifactorial. There is a large genetic component and an environmental component.
Later in life, there are many factors that can increase the risk of developing an ED that include but not limited to major transitions (job changes, job loss, or divorce), dieting in an attempt to maintain the physique from younger years, challenging relationships, children moving out, loss of a loved one, unexpected health issues, trauma, and more.
For women, the physical body changes associated with childbirth, breastfeeding, and menopause can also greatly impact body image which increases the risk of the development of an ED. The research shows us that women in their 30s are at the highest risk of developing an illness called orthorexia. Orthorexia is an obsession with health and eating the “right” things.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that is obsessed with “bouncing back” after having a kid or “beating aging”. The expectation on women to not age can lead to more extreme methods of maintaining youth such as extreme diets or exercise, plastic surgery or more. These alone are not the cause of an eating disorder, but they can be a trigger for one.
The obsession with youth and turning back the clock leads to a greater focus on body image. According to Harvard Health, women also struggle with a sense of losing control over how their body changes with age. They note that changes in estrogen levels seem to play a role in ED development at both ends of the age spectrum.
What an Eating Disorder Dietitian sees
As an Eating Disorder Dietitian, I see how hard it can be for individuals who are mid-life or older. They are often both incredibly frustrated and often hopeless. They know that something is wrong and they struggle to make change even though they want to. This might be because either the behaviour has been there for a long time or they feel isolated in the situation making the change feel impossible. The clients that I see often feel that they should “know better’ or “it shouldn’t be this hard”.
We know that eating disorders are NOT a choice. This is not about knowledge. It is not about knowing what is right or what is harmful to your body. Individuals struggling with eating disorders later in life need support and help to make these changes just the same as individuals earlier in life. There are supports available to help!
So Now What?
Recognition that eating disorders in midlife occur is only the first step. Now that we are aware that they exist, we can help support change.
Here are 6 ways that you can help:
- Call out diet culture and negative body talk when you hear it
- This helps us to show up as an ally and reduce the perceived pressure to achieve a certain body or avoid looking older as we age
- Check-in on the people in your life – of all ages!
- When you notice disordered eating behaviours, gently check in on how a person is doing. Let them know that you care about them and that you will be there to support them. Here are more tips for supporting a friend or a loved one with an eating disorder.
- Help them advocate for support.
- Unfortunately, due to the stereotype of eating disorders, not all medical professionals are as aware as needed around eating disorder behaviours. Make sure your loved one is pursuing appropriate supports for them to move towards recovery. Read my blog post on weight stigma in eating disorder treatment to learn more.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please know that we are here to help. This disorder has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and it needs to be taken seriously at all ages. Our experienced eating disorder dietitians can help.
Are you looking for a caring and supportive eating disorder dietitian that gets it to guide the way towards recovery?
Our team of eating disorder dietitians are specialized in helping individuals to overcome eating disorders at any age with a gentle and professional approach. Learn more about our nutrition counselling programs for those with eating disorders or simply click the button below to reach out to see how we can help.
Don’t forget to check your health insurance. Many insurance plans cover Dietitian services.
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Disordered Eating, Emotional Eating & Sports Nutrition
Fitness enthusiast and lover of all things food, Jana is passionate about helping her clients improve their relationship with food and their body. She is a strong, motivational leader. Jana also offers the balance of a warm, supportive coaching style to nudge her clients from their comfort zone while feeling safe and supported. She specializes in mental health, eating disorders, body image and sports nutrition.