Could you Have an Eating Disorder?
We all have an image of the typical eating disorder sufferer – she’s a teenager, right?
Well, maybe not.
According to a study in PLOS ONE, the average age that a woman develops an eating disorder has now upped to late 30s and early 40s.
That’s you, your friends and your colleagues: women who are allegedly older and wiser and expected to have made peace with their bodies.
And the really scary bit: a slew of hard to detect eating disorders have sprung up, meaning many of these women can’t be diagnosed officially, or get the help they need, until it’s too late. (Second scary fact: these disorders deliver a mind and body punch that kills more people every year than any other mental illness.)
Here we look at what you can do to help those you think might be at risk, how to spot your own early warning signs and what do to do if you’re mired by your own psychological struggle with food.
THE STRESS LINK
While teens and adults share the same eating disorder symptoms (dental decay, kidney failure or even cardiac arrest), their catalysts are quite different, says psychotherapist Jessica LeRoy.
“As women’s lives evolve, so do stressors and triggers,” she says. Those who develop eating disorders later in life don’t start off with a body-image problem. Instead, major life events such as having a baby, a marriage split or losing a parent can nudge the door open.
“Women think ‘If I’m in control of my eating, I’ll be able to deal with life,’” says psychologist Dr Naomi Crafti.
Unsurprisingly, high achievers and type-A personalities are prime candidates for late-onset disorders, and factors such as the current pressure on new mums to regain their pre-pregnancy figures with Posh-like speed don’t help.
So how do you differentiate between a fussy eater and someone with a full-on illness?
Ever-complicated recent eating disorders involve myriad symptoms; self-deprecating comments, wild mood swings, but the biggest tip-off is a sign of dietary see-sawing. A kebab-lover turning vegan, a sociable person refusing to dine out – they’re all red flags.
“If fitting into a pair of jeans make or break your day, it might be time to seek help,” says eating disorder specialist and psychotherapist Christel Parker.
Katy was 26 the first time she stuck her fingers down her throat. She’d grown up with healthy eating habits, but as she climbed the ladder at a PR company her stress levels rose too. After enjoying dinner with her partner, she popped to the loo, “I had pressure inside me that needed a release,” she says. “Afterwards, I felt better.”
Before long, Katy was purging upto eight times a day. At work, she’d vomit and return to her desk without anyone noticing. “I was like a closet smoker,” she says. Yet unlike many bulimics, Katy wasn’t trying to shed a dress size; she rarely binged and remained a size 14 throughout. Rather, she felt it was proof that she was in control of her life.
“Many hit a point, as early as age 30, where they feel there are things they should have accomplished,” says nutritionist Sondra Kronberg, director of the Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative. “They see a void and look for a way to feel good.” In essence, a feeling of failure is often a catalyst.
The good news is that women with late-onset eating disorders tend to heal quicker than adolescents, with 50% of patients recovering fully, says specialist and psychologist Dr Sari Shepphird. Most seek out treatment to get better – as opposed to teenagers, who usually get pushed into therapy.
Think you or a friend could be at risk? Read on to take control before it’s too late.
SHRINKING YOUR RISK
The best way to reduce any anxieties or stave off triggers that can lead to an eating disorder is to deal with your emotions and build a strong, healthy body. Here’s how:
Dial Down Your Cortisol
Whenever you’re really frazzled, your hypothalamus (a part of your brain that links the nervous and endocrine systems) shoots the stress hormone cortisol into your blood.
In someone who is constantly stressed, high levels of the hormone can lead to a need to feel ‘in control’, triggering an eating disorder – or, conversely, increase the risk of binge eating and obesity.
The best way to balance it out is – you guessed right – exercise. But stick to short, intense interval sessions of 30 minutes.
“When you exercise for more than 40 minutes, cortisol starts to rise again,” says Dr Natasha Turner, author of The Hormone Diet.
Write Your Wrongs
A lack of support following traumatic events is a major trigger of eating disorders, according to new research in The Journal of Clinical Nursing. So talk to friends, or seek help at samaritans.org or the onlinecounsellingservice.co.uk.
Alternatively, write down how you’re feeling.
Not only will it help ease anxiety but a study by The University of Chicago showed students who wrote about their feelings ten minutes before a test scored better, so it may help you perform at work too.
Find Balance With Yoga
It may sound flippant, but all that ohm-ing really does cut stress and makes you happier, according to research from Boston University’s School of Medicine.
Scientists measured levels of the feel-good brain chemical GABA in volunteers before and after 60 minutes of yoga and found levels increased by 27%. Plus, it led to a better body image, which may also cut risk.
Offer A Sympathetic Shoulder
If alarm bells are ringing about a friend, you may be hesitant to step in, but remember: “Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness,” says Parker.
“Even if you’re not certain, approach her anyway.”
Start with a non-judgmental general question such as “Are you stressed?” Then sit her down in private and say, “You might not agree, but I have to say something because I care about you.” Rather than giving advice, direct them to professional help sources. It could just save their life.
A GUIDE TO THE NEW EDNOS: EATING DISORDERS NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED
Use this at-a-glance guide to identify the six new extreme slimming illnesses hitting older women :
1/ Anorexia Athletica (a.k.a Exercise Addiction)
Working out well beyond required levels can affect jobs and relationships. “Sufferers purge calories by working out religiously, and feel anxiety if they don’t” says Dr Sari Shepphird, author of 100 Questions & Answers About Anorexia Nervosa.
2/ Orthorexia Nervosa (a.k.a Health Food Fixation
They often eat only organic or what they see as ‘pure’ foods, or even eliminate entire food groups. “Constantly reading nutritional values or giving waiters specific instructions can be a sign,” says Dr Crafti. Ironically, a severe case can lead to malnourishment.
3/ Drunkorexia (a.k.a Booze, Not Food)
Restricting food intake in order to reserve calories for alcohol and binge drinking. Worryingly, University of Missouri study found that almost 30% of females exhibited this behavior, ‘saving’ calories to avoid weight gain.
4/ Diabulimia (a.k.a Insulin Rejection
Diabetes sufferers skipping insulin shots can lead to rapid weight loss. People with type 1 diabetes need daily shots to aid glucose absorption for body fuel. Yet up to a third of young female sufferers skip them to stay thin – despite the potentially fatal consequences.
Food Neophobia (a.k.a Selective Eating)
Known as Selective Eating Disorder (SED), those who suffer will only eat certain foods – pancakes for example – possibly as a result of anxiety surrounding a traumatic childhood event. The website pickyeatingadults.com offers sufferers’ help and advice.
Pregorexia (a.k.a Hungry Mummy
Extreme dieting and exercising while pregnant to avoid the weight gain (25-35lbs) usually recommended by doctors.“It comes with serious health problems,” says Dr Shepphird. Starving mums-to-be are at risk of anaemia while babies can be miscarried.
IN YOUR GENES
Are you at risk of developing an eating disorder?
Built to fast
Scientists believe some people carry an inherited vulnerability to disorders. This may be due to a variety of genetic factors that can skip generations or never become active at all, says Dr Shepphird. Ask your family for details of any disorders in your medical history, including sufferers’ ages when they surfaced.
Experts believe excessive dieting and exercise can also be triggers. When a woman does either, her neurochemistry changes to welcome in healthy habits. However, women with anorexia or bulimia have abnormal neurotransmitter levels, which affect anxiety and appetite. So their DNA gets triggered deep within.
Without a genetic test for disorders, it’s hard to say whether you’ll follow suit if your mum or sister have had them. Be extra cautious when it comes to diets or extreme workouts. This is particularly crucial if you display anorexia-related traits such as perfectionism, or bulimia-related traits such as impulsivity.