Feeling fat is an insecurity many women don’t grow out of, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program. They found that 62% of women over age 50 reported that their weight or shape negatively impacts their lives — and many have eating disorders.
Previous research on disordered eating has focused on teens and young women, but the new study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders finds that about 13% of women over 50 have the problem too. The study included 1,849 women, average age 59, from across the U.S. who participated in the survey “Body Image in Women 50 and Over — Tell Us What You Think and Feel.” The questions ran the gamut, asking women about eating, aging, body image and their weight-loss attitudes and behaviors.
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Overall, the vast majority — 79% — said their weight or shape affected their self-perception, and more than 70% said they were trying to lose weight. Two-thirds of women thought about their weight or shape daily: 41% checked their body daily and 40% weighed themselves a couple of times a week or more. Their attitudes and behaviors put them at risk for full-blown eating disorders, the authors said. Indeed, about 3.5% of women reported binge eating, nearly 8% reported purging and 36% of women spending at least half their time in the last five years dieting.
They used several other unhealthy methods to drop weight, including diet pills (7.5%), excessive exercise (7%), diuretics (2.5%), laxatives (2%) and vomiting (1%).
Women in their 50s were most likely to report weight and eating issues, but the behaviors were reported in women over 75 as well.
“I would say the findings were expected to me, but will come as a surprise to the rest of the world. We have been seeing this clinically, but have not had the data to say this is something that’s going on. The stereotype is that eating disorders are for adolescents and younger women, but that’s not the case,” says study author Dr. Cynthia Bulik, director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program and author of The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are.
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Some women in the study had lived with eating issues their entire lives, and others had an eating disorder when they were younger, then recovered and relapsed. But weight issues weren’t necessarily insecurities that women carried over from younger years, says Bulik — many developed eating disorders for the first time after 50.
For some middle-aged women, the triggers for eating problems included major life changes, such as divorce, loss of a spouse, becoming an empty-nester, kids coming back home and loss of a job. “A lot of women are facing financial uncertainty who never thought they would at this age,” notes Bulik.
Another driving force: the intense cultural pressure to look forever young. “As a society, we are placing so much pressure on women over 50 to not look like they’re aging,” says Bulik. “There are ads saying, You should buy these products or get this surgery or make these changes, so the world doesn’t have to see your wrinkles. It’s pushing women toward unhealthy weight-controlling behaviors.
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Bulik and her team conclude that eating disorders need to be on physicians’ radars across their patients’ lifespans — especially since eating disorders could be more harmful to older women, whose bodies become less resilient with age. Disordered eating can lead to other systemic health problems affecting the heart, bones, gastrointestinal tract and mental health. “Providers don’t even think this is possibility for someone over 50, but half of our patients are over 30. Ten years ago it was not like that,” says Bulik.
The group is calling for further research on weight issues among women over 50. “Our paper says quite clearly that [these women] are not alone. This is a problem and others are struggling as well,” says Bulik.