It’s not only teenagers who feel the pressure to be skinny, anyone is at risk of developing an eating disorder but middle-aged women could be especially at risk…
A few years ago, while walking with my family, a skeleton of a middle-aged woman clad in gym clothes pushing a plump baby in a pram whizzed past. Almost every person she passed turned around to stare, open-mouthed with the same look of shock I felt.
While I’ll never know if she was ill or anorexic, I was reminded that it’s possible for eating disorders to affect anyone at any life stage, even when you’re supposed to be ‘basking in the glow of motherhood’.
Glow, what glow?
The idealised view of early motherhood is peaceful and all-out blissful. The reality is often a stark contrast.
For many, early motherhood can be described as an exhausting period of life filled with self-doubt, a loss of identity and riddled with ‘mommy guilt’. And then there are those who suffer from crippling postnatal depression on top of it.
There’s the pressure to be the perfect mother, magically losing the ‘baby weight’ in record time and getting back to work – all while chronically sleep-deprived.
It’s enough to push anyone over the edge and for some, this means developing an eating disorder.
Big life changes and a lack of support
A 2012 study by the University of Minnesota found that eating disorders can be triggered by life changes with a lack of support being a common theme.
Whether a new mom at 20 or at 40 years old, having a baby is a huge life change and a vulnerable stage for many women.
“There is generally no time frame where a person is likely to develop an eating disorder. It all depends on predisposing factors such as characteristics, family attitudes towards foods, abuse, and early feeding difficulties, as well as significant precipitating events like dieting, separation, relationships or illness,” says Rebecca Jennings, a nutritionist at Life Works and Priory Arthur House
Midlife crisis eating disorders
While some middle-aged women are waving teens off to college, others are still changing nappies, but the same holds true – middle-aged women face big life changes on top of fluctuating hormones.
“Pre-menopausal and the menopause transition may be a period of vulnerability for the development of an eating disorder. The risk of developing eating disorder symptoms can be in part due to the changes in oestrogen that occur at that time,” explains Jennings.
“This time in a middle-aged or pre-menopausal woman often coincides with other big life events such as adult children leaving the family home or losing elderly parents, which will affect an individual psychologically and can, therefore, be a factor in developing an eating disorder.”
Do we find peace with our food and our bodies on the other side of menopause?
Sadly not – a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders revealed that eating disorders and disordered eating may affect women in their 50s and beyond.
Dr Cynthia Bulik, Director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Programme, found that, of the 1 849 female participants in their 50s and over, 62% claimed that their weight or shape had a negative impact on their life, 36% reported spending at least half their time in the last five years dieting, 41% checked their body daily and 40% weighed themselves a couple of times a week or more, and more than 70% are trying to lose weight.
“We know very little about how women aged 50 and above feel about their bodies. An unfortunate assumption is that they ‘grow out of’ body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, but no one has really bothered to ask,” said Bruik.
Are you at risk?
Having an eating disorder as a teenager may increase your risk of developing an eating disorder later in life, which is why Jennings cautions against dieting.
“Dieting is one of the highest precipitating factors for eating disorders and an unnecessary risk for an individual with a history of one.”
So what should you do?
“I would advise working on your relationship with food and body with a qualified practitioner and looking into intuitive eating and HAES (health at every size),” advises Jennings.
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