More women aged 30-plus are developing eating disorders and first-time mums are particularly at risk. By Good Health & Medicine
's Sally Rawlings.
They're smart, they appear to have their life together and they are usually not overweight, yet many women in their 30s and 40s are grappling with eating problems.
Why? These women may have unresolved body-image issues from their teens, which re-emerge when facing new challenges, such as a life shift or parenthood.
Kelly, 42, had always been confident great job, lovely husband, financial security, happy life. Things changed when she had children: her body shape altered and so did her self-esteem. Dieting became a life-dominating eating disorder.
"I would see-saw between starving, purging and everything in between," she says. "I'd worry about going to dinner with my husband or visiting friends and how I could avoid eating."
After two years of self-loathing, self-destruction and a dangerous addiction to diet pills prescribed by a doctor, Kelly sought help from a psychologist. "I wanted to be the perfect mother and that's what I had become. I think I lost my sense of self."
Profile of a new sufferer
Eating disorders don't vanish once the tumultuous teens and 20s are over. Women in their 30s and 40s make up nearly a quarter of the calls from sufferers to the Eating Disorders Foundation (EDF) in NSW. They're reporting "bulimia, anorexia, binge eating and EDNOS [eating disorder not otherwise specified]," says Greta Kretchner, EDF executive officer. It's a new Western phenomenon.
Many sufferers may not seek help for some time, assuming eating disorders are just a teen problem. "It can be a very isolating experience, because of the public perception that it's a teenager's disease," says Frances Sanders executive officer of Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria. "But diseases like bulimia happen across the lifespan."
The big change
The trend to have babies later in life is believed to be contributing. Today, Australian women are more likely to give birth in their 30s and 40s, according to new research by the Australian National University.
That means that before they start a family, women have longer to become accustomed to being in control of their lives they have plenty of time to pursue a career, develop hobbies, maintain fitness and a general sense of control making motherhood more of a shocking jolt for some.
"Having a baby later involves more transition and change. Coping with change is a big issue for women with eating disorders a number of different life changes are acknowledged to be a risky time for the onset of disorders," says Sanders. "As well, these days, there's so much need for ongoing achievement in the workplace and to prove yourself at every age and there's similar expectations and pressure with being a good mother, too."
In an alarming twist, some mothers see breastfeeding as a dieting solution, says Sanders. "We're hearing from maternal health nurses that some women are breastfeeding their babies, then not compensating through food itself."
The maternal factor, in some cases, will motivate women to eventually seek help for their problem, driven by a fear that their children will imitate their behaviour, says Kretchner.
Other triggers to watch
The early 40s, in particular, are renowned for being a high-pressure time for many women. A time when the words 'juggling' and 'responsibilities' take on a life of their own. It's also a time when divorce rates peak. The median age for divorce among women was 40 in 2004, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (rising from a median age of 37 in 1994).
Subsequently, there are many more women dating in this age group, adding more pressure to look attractive. "We see more beautiful people and young role models today in a day than our grandmothers would have seen in a lifetime," notes Sanders.
Also, with the doubling of the number of obese people in Australia the past 20 years, frank media coverage has increased the stigma associated with being overweight one UK newspaper recently suggested 'fattism' may be the 'new racism', with discrimination directed towards the overweight.
The anti-obesity message can get easily twisted. "People with restrictive eating disorders can start thinking they're actually doing the right thing thinking they're being healthy," says Kretchner.
Getting help is vital
First stop: see your GP or visit the websites listed below for further information on where to seek assistance. "I can't emphasise enough the importance of finding the right experts," says Kelly. "In my case, a psychologist helped me to get in touch with myself to connect with who I really was and what I liked to do, getting a sense of pride and pleasure out of something other than dieting. I joined craft groups, dancing groups, and now I've gone back to university. At times, I feel the triggers coming back when life gets stressful, if I'm tired or overcommitted and pay more attention to dieting then I get straight back to my GP or psychologist."
How to help someone
Ask yourself, are you the right person to help?
"If there's a good relationship, bring it up, raise concerns," says Kretchner. "The problem is when people with eating disorders live in a fantasy land and think no-one is noticing what's happening to them so if no-one says anything, it's feeding that fantasy."
Approach with caution.
"Think about the most appropriate way to approach the person," says Sanders. "Make the timing appropriate."
Be aware that it's a mental, not physical disorder, says Sanders. Saying, "You look slim," won't help. Read up before you speak out.
Try to focus on the symptoms
Use "I" statements, for instance, "I've noticed you seem depressed/withdrawn and it worries me," rather than just saying "You are depressed/You've got an eating disorder".
Don't be a detective.
Offer support, instead, and have resources available if they do ask for help.
Be patient. Nothing may change immediately and the person may react in anger or denial but it's important to let them know that a non-judgemental person is there for them.
For more information: