Menopause and Eating Disorders: A Surprising Issue
You might think that eating disorders are a problem just for teenage girls. But did you know that women can have these problems during menopause as well? It’s true!
Menopause is a time of drastic adjustments. Your hormone levels are shifting, your body shape is changing, and many life stressors are happening simultaneously. These can trigger the resurfacing of old patterns or the onset of new ones.
This blog post will explore the link between menopause and eating disorders.
Why Are Middle-Aged Women at Risk for Developing Eating Disorders?
Menopause doesn’t directly trigger disordered eating. However, the symptoms can certainly provoke problems with food. Some middle-aged women will have had difficulty with food earlier in life that has resurfaced during menopause.
In addition, a part of this group may always have had subclinical symptoms but were undiagnosed until midlife. But for others, the changes associated with menopause may trigger the onset of new problems with food.
Menopause is a time when many women experience significant physical changes such as weight gain or changes in body composition.
Furthermore, the hormone changes at this time of life can lead to anxiety, depression, and mood swings – all of which can contribute to developing an eating disorder.
Middle-aged women may also be coping with empty-nest syndrome, divorce or breakup with a partner, health problems, busy careers, job loss, financial concerns, or the death of a loved one. All of these are significant stressors that can affect mental health in general and eating issues in particular.
During menopause, women are also often re-balancing their work and personal life and rediscovering themselves.
Some have described menopause as puberty but in reverse. So, it’s not surprising that some women fall into disordered eating or full-blown eating disorders during this time.
Difference Between an Eating Disorder and Disordered Eating
Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening illnesses. They are characterized by behaviors that interfere with normal eating patterns, leading to severe physical and emotional consequences.
The American Psychiatry Association (APA) recognizes three main types of this condition: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binging.
Disordered eating is a general term that encompasses any abnormal or unhealthy relationship with food. It includes, but is not limited to, behaviors such as restrictive dieting, compulsive overeating, purging, and excessive exercise.
This condition has a significant impact on physical and emotional health and can lead to an eating disorder.
Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Menopause
The symptoms can vary depending on the type of problem.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by being very restrictive with food, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image.
Bulimia nervosa is characterized by binging followed by purging through vomiting, laxatives, or diuretics.
Binging is defined as consuming a large amount of food in a short period, paired with a feeling of lack of control and guilt. Binge eating is recognized by frequent episodes of overeating without behavior to compensate, such as excessive exercise or vomiting.
Signs and Symptoms of Disordered Eating
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics lists the following as signs and symptoms of disordered eating:
- Frequently dieting
- Feeling anxious about having certain foods
- Feeling guilt and embarrassment associated with food
- Fasting, exercising excessively, restricting food to compensate for consuming “bad foods.”
- Having strict routines and rituals related to food and exercise
- Feeling constantly preoccupied with weight, body image, and food, negatively affecting the quality of life
- Obsessing over body image and comparing oneself to others
How Many Menopausal Women Suffer From Eating Disorders or Disordered Eating?
There is not enough research to determine how many middle-aged women suffer from eating disorders or disordered eating.
However, the research available suggests that the prevalence of these conditions in middle-aged women is increasing. For example, a study among 1849 participants estimated that 13% of women older than 50 experience disordered eating behaviors, dieting, and weight shape concerns.
Another study shows that the prevalence of diagnosed clinical problems with food among women aged 40 years or older is around 3 to 4%.
Additionally, studies show an increase in hospitalizations among women over 45 years old in specialist inpatient facilities.
Eating disorders are often underdiagnosed and undertreated in this population for a variety of reasons.
First, many healthcare providers are not trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of eating disorders in menopausal women.
Second, there is a lot of stigma attached to this problem, and many women are embarrassed or ashamed to seek help.
Recovering from an Eating Disorder
There is a misconception that these disorders are a lifestyle choice, but in reality, it’s a mental illness that can profoundly impact physical health and can even be fatal.
Reach Out to Someone You Trust
If you have noticed a deterioration in your relationship with food and are unsure of how serious the issue is, you can confide in someone first.
Make sure it’s someone you trust, you feel comfortable with, and that the person will not judge you. It can be a family member, a friend, or online support, such as the National Eating Disorder Association.
Keep in mind that your friends and family might not be familiar with eating disorders, and you will need help from a specialist.
If you’re worried that you’re suffering from an eating disorder, it’s important to seek professional help to assess the severity of your problem and get started on a treatment plan.
You can talk to your physician, a mental health care provider, or a registered dietitian or seek help in an organization such as the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
If you have an eating disorder, you will most likely be referred to a multidisciplinary team who can provide comprehensive care.
How Can You Support Someone with a Midlife Eating Disorder?
If you suspect that a friend or family member is developing an eating disorder, the best thing you can do is talk to them about it.
Be supportive, understanding, and non-judgmental, and let them know that you’re there for them.
If they’re not ready to seek professional help, you can still provide support by helping them find resources or information on eating disorders.
Here are some additional resources:
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA); free and low-cost support
- Eating disorder screening tool
- Eating disorders book recommendations
- Eating disorders brochure in Spanish
- List of support resources
A Note of Hope
Eating disorders can occur to anyone, and those suffering from them may not even know it.
Menopause can trigger eating disorders due to the hormonal and life changes and general life stressors that happen during this time.
If you’re worried about your relationship with food, don’t panic – help is available, and recovery is definitely possible.
“Menopause and Eating Disorders: A surprising Issue” was written by Su-Nui Escobar, DCN, RDN, FAND, and soon-to-be Registered Dietitian Irene Mejia.
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Survey finds disordered eating behaviors among three out of four American women (fall, 2008). UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. https://sph.unc.edu/cphm/carolina-public-health-magazine-accelerate-fall-2008/survey-finds-disordered-eating-behaviors-among-three-out-of-four-american-women-fall-2008/. Published February 11, 2015. Accessed June 4, 2022.
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Dr. Su-Nui Escobar is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist in Miami, FL. She is passionate about helping women over 40 live their best lives through healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle. Su-Nui is a doctor in clinical nutrition, able to translate complicated evidence-based science into practical advice. Su-Nui’s charisma and warmth have made her a frequent guest on Hispanic popular morning television shows.