The October issue of More, a magazine targeting women over 40, arrived in my mailbox last week. I have slowly leafed through it, and today hit an interesting article in the body & mind section. Eating for Less Than One explores a "new epidemic" of eating disorders among women over the age of 35. Older women are more likely to have disordered eating than the classical eating disorders, but the impact on their lives may be as severe as anorexia nervosa. Unfortunately, this article does not appear to be available on their web site at this time.
They only present numbers about the "surge of these illnesses among women several decades older" than the Justin Bieber set from a couple of sources, One group of 10 US eating-disorder clinics reports close to 20 percent of its patients are now over 30. The program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reports that about half of their current patients are 35 or older. They present the stories of 4 women with various problems:
- The "Healthy" Eater: She spends a lot of time research health claims, eliminating "bad" foods from her diet and adding others that may provide additional "magic fairly dust" to improve her health. She may eat only organic or raw foods, making it difficult to go out. "Brit" admits that her food issues contributed to her divorce and have led to ongoing social isolation.
- The Finicky Eater: My family would nominate me for this category, but I rarely cannot satisfy (or even overeat) anywhere I go. This woman eats only french fries, bagels, macaroni and cheese, pasta with butter or marinara sayce, vegetarian pizza, corn, broccoli, apples, and bananas. She describes aversions to the texture of other foods in her mouth. Recently when someone offered her a lunch, she said she was fasting for a medical procedure rather than admit that she would only eat nine foods, none of which were available.
- The Doughnut Junkie: Binge eating and obesity in response to a family that told her incessantly she was fat growing up. She got thinner during therapy for a breast tumor. As the weight started returning her mom said, "Don't you wish you could stay on that chemo forever? You sure did look good." She knows that soon her self-disgust will bottom out and she will stop binging, as she has before.
- The Dieting Champion: This woman describes pushing food around on her plate so it looks like she's eating. In reality, no food enters her body. She keeps eliminating foods from her diet, and eventually enjoys the "buzz" that accompanies fasting. She also exercises compulsively. Therapy is helping, but she cannot eat a hot lunch because a cooked meal mid-day triggers such self-loathing. She can now take 1 day off a week from the gym.
So why are we seeing these issues now? According to Kathryn Zerbe, MD, director of the Oregon Psychoanalytic Institute in Portland:
In our mothers' generation, there was acceptance that your body wasn't going to look the same at 50 as it did at 25. Today there's not. For some women, an obsession with a rigid diet is a way of trying to skirt the issue of aging and mortality.
Let's face it: many actresses and celebrities have better bodies in their 50s than I ever had.
With a careful history, many of these women with "late-onset" eating disorders reveal eating problems earlier in their lives. Some of the psychological issues involve the need for control, much as they do with classic anorexia nervosa.
While obesity and its complications are epidemic, other maladaptive relationships with food are also on the rise.