Mental Health

Eating Disorders in Middle Age

October 19, 2023

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I'm Michelle — health coach for women who want to escape diet culture and find the health they deserve.

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Caution: This blog refers openly to eating disorders, which can be triggering for many. If it’s triggering for you, take care of your needs and get some support before you dive in.

When we talk about eating disorders and disordered eating, many of us automatically think of adolescents, teenagers, and young adults. The images that come to mind are often of young people grappling with body image issues, dieting, and the relentless pursuit of a certain idealized look. However, eating disorders are not just confined to this age group. Men and women of all ages can experience eating disorders, and middle age is a time when these issues can be particularly challenging.

This topic holds special significance for me because I am a middle-aged woman who has only recently begun to find healing around my own struggles with eating disorders. As I embarked on this journey of self-discovery, I realized that many women in their middle years face unique challenges when it comes to their relationship with food. To shed more light on this often-overlooked aspect of eating disorders, I had the privilege of speaking with Nicole Christina, a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience specializing in eating disorders.

The Hidden Struggles of Middle Age

Nicole shared a crucial insight that when clients come to her with issues like depression or anxiety, which are not explicitly related to food, she often delves into their eating behaviors. She’s found that there is frequently a rigidity or distress mirrored in her clients’ relationships with food. This revelation highlights a fundamental truth: when we make food restrictions, regulation, and disordered eating the focal point of our lives, we unintentionally rob ourselves of fully living. After all, food is everywhere; it’s an integral part of our social and cultural fabric. Constantly assessing and measuring our food intake takes away from the enjoyment we should be experiencing in other aspects of our lives.

So, why do so many middle-aged individuals, especially women, find themselves fixated on controlling their food intake? The reasons are multifaceted, often deeply ingrained, and tied to the unique challenges middle age presents.

Causes of Eating Disorders in Middle Age

Nobody wakes up one morning and decides, “I want to have an eating disorder.” Eating disorders are not a conscious choice; they often develop as a way to cope with various challenges middle-aged individuals face. For example, if you have devoted decades to your career, and suddenly find yourself contemplating retirement. This transition can leave you with a sense of purposelessness, a lack of structure, and the need for self-reinforcement.

In many ways, this mirrors the upheaval adolescents go through as they transition into adulthood. Middle age, while rich with opportunities, can also bring significant changes and losses to navigate. It can be a tumultuous period, and eating disorders can seem like an elegant solution to cope with emotional turmoil. However, the cost of hyper-focusing on food intake and obsessing over metrics like the number of steps taken is enormous.

Moreover, middle-aged individuals often grapple with comparing themselves to younger generations, and even their own daughters. Hormonal changes, aging skin, and other physical transformations can trigger feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. For some, the rigid control over food becomes a way to measure their worth when other aspects of life feel uncertain. It provides a semblance of safety and predictability, allowing them to regain a sense of control in a world that seems chaotic.

The Pressure to Be Small

Society has, for a long time, conveyed the message that women are meant to be small in their own lives. This message is deeply ingrained, and it extends to body size. Many middle-aged women, despite their significant accomplishments, feel that every achievement makes them “too big” in the world. This can lead to a cycle of binge eating followed by periods of severe restriction, all in an attempt to shrink themselves back to societal standards.

Breaking free from this cycle is a complex process that involves examining various aspects of one’s life. Simply focusing on food intake without addressing the deeper emotional issues may lead to replacing one set of rules with another. A holistic approach, which considers emotional, psychological, and physical well-being, is necessary.

The Importance of Professional Help

Nicole Christina underscores the importance of working with a professional experienced in the realm of eating disorders. It’s about delving into all aspects of life, not just food. The hardest part is recognizing that you are stuck in a diet cycle or rigid set of rules that prevent you from truly enjoying life’s pleasures. Many people don’t even realize they have an eating disorder or disordered eating patterns. It takes time for them to understand the emotional and physical pain associated with these behaviors.

For healthcare and mental health professionals, it is crucial to inquire about a patient’s relationship with food, even when they present with issues seemingly unrelated to eating. As both Nicole and I have experienced, a significant portion of the stress middle-aged women face can be tied to their relationship with food and their bodies.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Ultimately, the goal is not merely to achieve a certain body size or adhere to rigid food rules; it’s about finding happiness and well-being. Happiness is deeply intertwined with health, and this goes beyond just the absence of disease. True health includes thriving in various aspects of life and being able to fully enjoy the richness of existence.

Evelyn Tripoli, an advocate in this field, emphasizes the importance of satisfaction. The key is to savor life’s pleasures, including food, and appreciate them without guilt or anxiety. It’s about living in the moment and relishing the simple joys that life offers.

Middle age can be a challenging time, marked by significant life changes and emotional turmoil. Eating disorders and disordered eating are not limited to adolescents and young adults; they affect people of all ages. Recognizing the unique struggles middle-aged individuals face in their relationship with food is the first step toward breaking free from the cycle of control and restriction. Seeking professional help and adopting a holistic approach to well-being can pave the way for a healthier and happier middle age.

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