In many cultures, In many cultures,

Eating Issues, Aging, and Women

Headshot of tired looking womanIn many cultures, women are honored and revered as they age. In present-day modern society, most women experience pressure to remain young, thin, and beautiful, with little appreciation for the wisdom and experience they have accrued over the years. Not surprisingly, there has been a corresponding increase in the incidence of eating issues among midlife and older women. February 24 marks the start of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and this frequently overlooked subgroup of women deserves attention.

The media, popular culture, and even the medical establishment have stressed the inherent dangers of carrying excess weight as we age. Yet many women in their 40s and 50s struggle with eating issues such as anorexia and bulimia, once thought to have affected only youth. In a study of 1,859 women ages 50 and older, Dr. Cynthia Bulik and colleagues reported that 13.3% of respondents acknowledged symptoms of an eating disorder. She found that 3.5% reported binge eating within the past month, and 8% indicated they had purged within the past five years.

Some of the self-destructive behaviors these women reportedly used to control their weight included self-induced vomiting (1.2%), laxative abuse (2.2%), diuretic abuse (2.5%), excessive use of exercise (7%), and diet-pill abuse (7.5%). Interestingly, although 28% of the women indicated they had struggled with an eating disorder in the past, many had no previous history. While 42% of respondents maintained a normal weight, and 2% were underweight, it is noteworthy that 70% indicated that they were trying to lose weight and 79% reported that their weight and body image affected their self-image.

Is there an increase in eating issues among older women, or have we simply failed to notice this problem in the past? Given the absence of good, epidemiological data, the answer is unclear. What is apparent, though, is that at a time in life when women should be enjoying the fruits of their labor, the joys of their accomplishments, and an abundance of friends and family, many are entrenched in self-loathing and weight obsession. Furthermore, while self-destructive behaviors such as restrictive eating, excessive exercise, or purging behaviors can wreak havoc on a young adult’s body, they are even more dangerous for midlife and older women, who may be less resilient. For example, there is an increased risk of severe osteoporosis, gastroesophogeal reflux, and cardiovascular disease among women 50 and over who use eating-disordered behaviors.

Eating issues have gained more recognition, and the problem is often identified when it develops in adolescence or early adulthood. However, eating-disordered behaviors among older women are frequently overlooked. Symptomatic individuals often harbor tremendous shame and are fiercely guarded about their symptoms. They are more adept than adolescents at hiding symptoms from family and friends, or may live alone and avoid scrutiny. Some may even rationalize that these behaviors are part of a “healthy” lifestyle. In a society where obesity is criticized, women may be praised by physicians, coworkers, and friends for weight loss as their underlying problem goes unnoticed.

It is critical that women take this health threat seriously, regardless of age. If you are restricting your caloric intake, maintaining an impossibly low weight, losing weight too rapidly, and/or engaging in any purging symptoms, such as self-induced vomiting, or laxative, diuretic, or diet-pill abuse, it is imperative that you seek help from your health care provider and a therapist who specializes in eating issues. Even if symptoms are not as extreme, an obsessive preoccupation with weight and size, a poor body image, and devoting a disproportionate amount of time to concerns associated with appearance indicate that you may need some therapeutic support.

At the very least, speak with a loved one or friend about your concerns and get a reality check about your behaviors or thoughts. On a broader scale, more input in the media and in our society is needed to refute the widespread expectation that women must continue to maintain a youthful, slender appearance at the expense of their mental health.


  1. Gagne, D., Von Holle, A., Brownley, K., Runfola, C., Hofmeier, S., Branch, K., & Bulik, C.  (2012). Eating Disorder Symptoms and Weight and Shape Concerns in a Large Web-Based Convenience Sample of Women Ages 50 and Above: Results of the Gender and Body Image Study (GABI). International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45, 832-844.

For more information, click here for some useful websites about eating issues.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Gail Post, PhD, Women's Issues Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • mandy

    February 18th, 2013 at 9:07 AM

    Oh, super. Here I was thinking that once I hit 40 I’d be done with all the nonsense of worrying about my weight. I am so tired of having to worry about it!

  • Peter

    February 18th, 2013 at 9:11 AM

    so great to see this age group having awareness brought to this issue my mom had a hard time with it.

  • Esther r

    February 18th, 2013 at 9:21 AM

    At this point in my life I ahd hoped that I would have become more satisfied and comfortable with my body through thick and thin but sometimes I feel even more uncomfortable with my body than I ever did when I was younger. I would not say that I have problematic eating but I do find myself limiting what I eat and thinking about it a lot more than I used to simply because it feels like I have to. There is not that reverence for older women in our culture the way that there is in some others and it is always this message that we have to be thinner and thinner to be considered beautiful. I hate that I am always feeling like I have to live up to someone’s expectations that I don’t even know, but there I am always working toward that and forever being unhappy with the results.

  • Raul

    February 18th, 2013 at 9:46 AM

    I wonder if this issue is more because of an increased awareness or is it because more women are now under such pressure? If you look at magazines, it’s not just the young models who look beautiful. Sally Fields, Brooke Shields, Christie Brinkley to name a few are all women who are well into the wrinkle age who look flawless in magazines. While some women may indeed be able to feel a sense of freedom from body issues once they are in their 40’s and 50’s, many women are still subscribing to magazines that would like them to believe that they are supposed to have the skin of 20 year olds.

  • Tracer

    February 18th, 2013 at 9:49 AM

    The importance of Mental health as people age cannot be underestimated. Getting older is difficult enough in and of itself. If people are worried about looking 40 years younger than they actually are, it just adds to the difficulties. I am hopeful that this article will shine a light on an area that is not often discussed and can start some meaningful dialogue that will help people.

  • herschelle

    February 18th, 2013 at 4:56 PM

    binge eating or excessive dieting neither is good.I just think laying too much tress on either ends up affecting a person the wrong way.if you are just being yourself and filter out the half-baked ‘facts’ that you hear from everybody around you then you might start to have a healthy diet and stay away from obesity as well as under eating.what do you all think?

  • Naomi

    February 18th, 2013 at 11:06 PM

    The important thing to be considered here is changing life stages call for adaptions in eating habits.So while your exercise levels may go on the decline as you age you can compensate for it with healthier foods.A middle aged woman cannot binge on fast food and expect it to be compensated over the weekend exercising.

    Also what I have personally observed is that too many women remain stuck in their younger ages mentally.They want to have the same them even in their middle age.That is simply not possible due to biology.You need to adapt and adjust and the focus should be on remaining healthy and not necessarily thin or have the ideal body.

  • blickman

    February 19th, 2013 at 3:50 AM

    I don’t understand all of this with women and their issues with eating. Wouldn’t you say that men face the same pressures that women do and have alot fewer problems with eating issues? When will they learn to just eat and be happy and not worry about what other people think about their size and their weight? If you are happy with who you are and the size you are it really shouldn’t matter at all what someone else could be thinking.

  • Karen

    February 19th, 2013 at 9:53 PM

    My eating issues began around the age of puberty, when a woman’s body begins to go through many & embarrassing changes. Unlike men, women are exposed in teenage & now pre- teen age years to look like & fit the model perfect, body beautiful. Women are constantly bombarded with this, unlike men. I believe we are all under great pressures these days but women are constantly reminded of their aging…i.e. cover up that grey hair, even when you lose weight in menopause, everything goes south, seriously, and them the husband often leaves an older woman for a younger version. Unlike men, women are always obsessed with their weight, upon which they base their self esteem, self worth, and self loathing.

  • jennifer

    February 19th, 2013 at 11:22 PM

    I think what the habits we develop in our youth often remain with us if I eat healthy in my younger days I would tend to do the same in middle age and beyond too.what I will also carry along will be the habit of excessive exercising,if I have it in my early I think the younger days set the tone-to practice and to have an image of the mending our ways in this period can help for a lifetime.

  • ruthie

    February 20th, 2013 at 4:03 AM

    If you men were only aware of the constant beating that we feel from magazines and tv to stay forever young, you would maybe understand a little more about what we are feeling and why this has become so prevalent in many of us older women. Why do you automatically just assume that it is something going on with us when really there are very valid reasons why we are feeling the way that we do?

  • Samantha Young

    February 20th, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    We have gone from being a society that values women for their past accomplishments and wisdom to one that values only the superficial things in life.
    Never mind what this woma has done in her life, the only thing that matters is if she is a perfect size 6 or 2 or whatever and she looks darn good.

  • jack

    February 20th, 2013 at 11:57 PM

    you know with so much stress laid upon the eating issues that women face I think there is little for men to learn from out there.It causes many men to remain confused or even ashamed about themselves if they are having an eating issue.They may not even be able to identify one because they do not see it as a problem.We need more information on men when it comes to eating issues.

  • Bailee L

    February 21st, 2013 at 5:55 AM

    I hear what everyone is saying, but from a personal point of view, I see that it is up to me to have faith in who i am and to be proud of the woman that i become. if I allow what toher think to shape how i feel about myself, then that’s something that I alone need to work on, not them.

  • rachel

    February 21st, 2013 at 11:15 PM

    look around, most people that are overtly bothered about their physical appearance are the ones that have zero self confidence! not the norm but is quite true.

    if you are confident of yourself and your accomplishments then your health will automatically remain in check. I have observed this in a lot of people and those that obsess about themselves are often only looking for an outlet to feel good about themselves.

  • margaret

    February 22nd, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    I wonder if there are very many doctors talking to their patients about these dangers or are they only seeing that on the surface these women look good because they have their weight under control?

  • jane

    February 22nd, 2013 at 11:19 PM

    if you are not careful about your health and eating habits in your youth it can be tough to make adjustments later on.but even if you do it in your younger years,it can be quite a bit of a challenge because your body is ageing and things are not as easy as they used to be.

    so midlife is a time when taking care of health and eating habits can be tough but it is very important its imperative we keep a check on ourselves at this crucial juncture.

  • Solomon

    February 23rd, 2013 at 10:15 AM

    Look, more than anything else this has to become about women getting comfortable with who they are and telling anyone who thinks differently that they can take a hike.

    Don’t we tell our kids when someone is being mean to them at school just to tune it all out? maybe the same goes for these women who are paying far too much attention to what everyone esle thinks and paying not enough attention to how they feel about themselves.

    The choices that we make in life only reflect upon us, and if we are happy with those, then really who cares about what anyone else thinks? We are better than this, stronger then this, and anyone who thinks different, then they just don’t have a clue.

  • brandon

    February 23rd, 2013 at 9:59 PM

    can’t we just be who we want to be?and not what others expect of us??

    it seems like more and more people are more bothered about what others want of them than what they want of themselves.I am no different but am definitely trying my best to push for a change.

  • Kim

    February 24th, 2013 at 8:46 PM

    I never really had eating issues in my teens or even in my 20s. Maybe it was the times or maybe I had a body that didn’t need too much taking care of. But now I’m in my 50s and the combination of all the razzmatazz and a teenage daughter who wants me to be just like her doesn’t help.

  • KerriAnna

    February 25th, 2013 at 4:15 AM

    I watched both my grandma and mom go throuygh this
    So obviously a cycle that would be easy to get sucked into
    It has been hard to try to break that pattern
    because of their own insecurities they have been as hard on me as anyone else ever could be
    These are the women who are supposed to love you no matter what
    And yet their standards for perfection have been so high
    Too unattainable for me

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