Middle age, weight gain and disordered eating.
So, I’m 42 now, which for some would classify me as ‘middle-age’ I guess, depending on how long I will live. For those of you who know me well and have been following my page for a while know that as a young girl and adult, I battled with my weight and body through yo-yo dieting and obsessing about the moral (health) value of food.
As I’ve gotten older, I have noticed that while nothing else has changed, my body is beginning to and for someone with a history of disordered eating – this was an incredibly triggering time for me.
However, thankfully, over these past few years, I’ve learned a lot about health and that knowledge has helped me to maintain a healthy relationship with food despite being a bit heavier in the hips (and a few more greys and wrinkles haha!) I hope that I can help others to know that it’s ok, that our bodies change, and that no matter what, we deserve to care for, nourish and respect our bodies – most definitely – without diets.
When we think of disordered eating we often have visions of the young teenage emancipated (often white) woman.
Coincidentally, the two times that disordered eating can peak for women are in those TWO big critical or sensitive periods of reproductive hormone change. Puberty was the most common time that we witness the start of dieting, restrictive behaviours and in some cases eating disorders, however, there is another overlooked critical hormonal change period that is often overlooked but just as dangerous time for these behaviours – menopause.
Ah, just when we thought it couldn’t get worse!
Although most cases still appear in adolescent girls and young women, an alarming shift has occurred—eating disorders are now on the rise among middle-aged and older women as we see an increasing number of middle-aged women from highly industrialised countries are practising disordered eating behaviours (1)
I’d like to personally argue that these behaviours may not be so much ‘on the rise’ as they are now more openly talked about and studied. Regardless, we are hearing about more and more restrictive and disordered eating habits amongst middle-aged women.
What do I mean by disordered eating? This can be a wide range of behaviours, that may not include diagnosed eating disorders anorexia or bulimia. Instead, it could like excessive restrictive eating, yo-yo dieting etc, restrained eating in general, an unhealthy obsession with food or body etc.
WHY IT IS HAPPENING
So why are we starting to see more and more middle-aged women battling with restrictive eating patterns and in some cases even full-blown eating disorders?
Put simply, the lower our self-esteem the more inclined we are to engage in disordered eating behaviours. And thanks to several factors to sway us this way, menopause can be the perfect storm for rigid restriction, disordered eating and full-blown eating disorders.
We’ve had a whole lifetime of diet dogma ingrained in our minds, perhaps we suffered from disordered eating or an eating disorder when we were younger, or maybe we have always had a stable weight but suddenly… our hip/belly size seems to be increasing. This can be scary and frustrating for women and there are many reasons why we might suddenly start to engage in unhealthy restrictive behaviours during menopause. Two major ones include:
Our body changes: Let’s make this 100% clear – it’s NORMAL to put on extra weight, especially around your middle as our bodies age. This is often due to hormonal changes but can also be a result of doing less movement as we grow older. We know for many who have had a history of dieting and fighting this weight that this can be incredibly scary, especially in a society that demonises ‘fatness’. Due to these hormonal shifts and excess weight gain we can easily start to relapse into our old or even very recent disordered eating habits. How much, or whether we gain weight at all is completely individual. But we need to accept the normality (and beauty) of the curves we develop as we grow older.
Being a middle-aged woman is hard work! Mid-life and beyond is often the time when major life events happen. Maybe you buy a home (or move into a better one), children move out, divorce, ageing parents, losing friends or family, stressful careers and let’s not forget societal pressures to look like our 20-year-old selves! It would make sense that we would feel the need to control something when everything else is very much out of control, and difficult. Much like a teenager has their stresses, I’d like to say that the problems we face at mid-age are even more intense.
“It’s a kind of cultural toxicity. We’re told that to be seen, to get a promotion, to keep a romantic partner’s interest, we have to be thin and trim. That pressure ends up being a far greater risk factor for disordered eating than are estrogen and serotonin sensitivity – and they affect a far greater number of women.” nutrition therapist and eating disorder specialist Julie Duffy Dillon
Because our bodies change – the societal pressures to look like our younger selves are bigger and worse than ever. It’s a vicious cycle – our bodies naturally change thanks to hormones and other factors and yet the societal pressure is still there, if not increasing, to look a certain way.
In addition to this, us ‘older’ women are also more reluctant to seek help. We think we should ‘just get over it’ and dieting and restrictive eating behaviours are ‘perfectly acceptable in a society that wants us to look younger.
So, what’s the problem? Certainly going on diets and losing weight will help us to become healthier right? Well my friend, unfortunately, I’ve got more bad news.
THE PROBLEM WITH DIETING AND RESTRICTIVE EATING (The current solution)
Weight cycling is harder on our bodies in general and especially as we age. Want to know the biggest causes of weight gain? The very thing we do to stop it – dieting. And the fluctuating changes to our weight over the years can have a variety of negative impacts on our health (and wellbeing).
Dieting itself can lead to further disordered eating – including overeating and binging.
“ Dieting leads to bingeing. It’s science. Say you skip breakfast to try and be ‘good’. Your brain is pissed. It sends out neurotransmitters and hormones like ghrelin and neuropeptide Y – both of which are super potent orexigenics, meaning that they stimulate the appetite. So as the day goes on, these guys build-up, you give in (to your normal biological urge to eat) and once you pop you can’t stop.” – London Institute for Intuitive Eating
Causes added stress (especially when they don’t work) Damned if you do damned if you don’t! Have you noticed that the more you diet, the harder the next diet is to maintain?
They get harder to stay on.
Not only that, all this weight cycling, binging, and generally feeling out of control around food affects not only our metabolism but our self-esteem as well. This, we know is then coincided with disordered eating and so… the cycle continues. It is a pony ride we can’t get off. Round and round we go.
A BETTER SOLUTION:
Stop fighting our bodies. We need to understand that our bodies will change as we age. That this is ok, it’s normal (and even helpful!) We're not meant to look 20 years old for the rest of our lives and our families and children - I bet they love you just the way you are. That excess body fat has a purpose, be grateful that your body knows just how to take care of you.
“Fighting our body’s natural inclination during this transition is counter-productive, Julie says, because fat, particularly in the midsection, holds on to estrogen. Even when a woman is no longer ovulating and producing regular estrogen, that fat allows the body to have a release of estrogen that can help alleviate menopause symptoms.” Nutrition therapist and eating disorder specialist Julie Duffy Dillon
If you can’t love your body, respect it at the very least. Would you recommend these unhealthy dieting/food obsession behaviours to your best friend, mother, daughter or sister?
Eat to feel good – Look at what you eat as an opportunity for self-care, not as a punishment to your body. Think of ways we can ‘crowed in’ more veggies and natural foods or how we can fill our plates with more colours. Understand that there is no one food that can heal or harm us and that all foods can be an enjoyable addition to a healthy way of eating.
Move your body in enjoyable ways. Again, movement should never be a punishment for what we ate or the shape/size of our body. Nor should it be punishment for growing older.
This is why I'm so passionate about sharing Empowered Eating with the world. Empowered eating is interwoven with the principles of intuitive eating and essentially is about tuning out the external noise so you can begin to listen to your body again. Dieting undermines our innate ability to recognise hunger and fullness and that’s a damn shame! Our bodies are clever and given the chance will tell you just what and how much food is best for you.
Empowered eating will teach you how to tune into your body’s signals of hunger and fullness again, to support you to move your body in enjoyable ways, to eat foods that make you feel great (yep including cake), to give you other options than using food to cope with emotions and most importantly to help you begin to take the steps to begin to respect your body and stop the vicious disordered eating cycle completely.
Let’s be kind to ourselves ladies, we’ve got enough on our plates as it is. Let’s turn healthy eating into a form of self-care rather than punishment and let go of the obsessive food thoughts (with help) to make room for all the things that bring us joy in our lives.
Life is good and ageing is a gift that is not bestowed on everybody. Let’s embrace it.