The surprising truth about eating disorders and age

9:13 AM, Dec 22, 2021
10:26 AM, Dec 27, 2021

Almost 30 million people in the United States will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, with even more cases going unreported or undetected, according to Harvard’s public health school. Further, many beliefs about eating disorders are misconceptions.

For example, many people think that an eating disorder will lead to weight loss when the reality is that fewer than 6% of people with eating disorders are considered underweight according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Another misconception is that eating disorders only affect teenagers and young adults. While the most common age of onset is between 12 and 25 — and about 10% male — according to Johns Hopkins University, people can develop eating disorders at any age.

Anorexia in seniors

Eating disorders are increasing among older people, with more deaths connected to anorexia nervosa in people age 65 and older than in adolescents, according to Today’s Dietitian.

Unlike the body image problems linked with eating disorders at younger ages, the problems influencing anorexia in seniors include changes in taste and smell (often linked with medication use), cognitive impairment, attention-seeking, depression, and rejection of food as a form of control. Loss and grief are also common triggers for eating disorders, according to Today’s Geriatric Medicine.

Changes in living circumstances also lead to anorexia. Elderly people living alone may have a difficult time buying and preparing food for themselves. As for those in assisted living facilities, they may be bored with the lack of food diversity or depressed, which can lead to poor appetite.

Many older people with eating disorders have either not been diagnosed or are suffering relapses, according to Today’s Geriatric Medicine. When a disorder has lasted for decades, it becomes a defining part of a person’s personality, making treatment needs more complicated than with adolescents.

Diet culture

No matter a person’s age, diet culture has led to most of the eating disorders that registered dietitian Lindsey Grauman has seen in her work. “The most common is overall disordered eating promoted by diet culture, and there is no distinction between eating disorders that happen to kids versus adults,” Grauman said. “Diet culture is a set of beliefs that value thinness, appearance, and shape above wellbeing. Diet culture promotes calorie restriction, normalizes negative self-talk, and labels foods as morally good and bad.”

Grauman, co-owner with Kim Johnson of Northern Nutrition Group in Bozeman, works to help people live a healthy lifestyle through education about how food works in the human body. She says one side effect of subscribing to diet culture is the development of serious disorders like anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and orthorexia—a disorder characterized by obsessions around extreme healthy/clean eating and quality of food.

“There is a genetic component to eating disorders, but genetics isn’t the only factor in determining who is at risk for developing an eating disorder,” Grauman said. “Eating disorders are considered biopsychosocial disorders that can happen to anyone. A lot more research is needed in the field to better understand how to prevent them. Working with a Registered Dietitian who provides evidence-based nutrition information is crucial when it comes to addressing the role food plays in peoples’ lives.”

People can be healthy, regardless of their sizes or shapes, Grauman said. That’s why the goal of every professional at Northern Nutrition Group is to “create a space where EVERY BODY is accepted, without shame and judgment, to help people address their relationship with food and better understand how food can work for their body, not against it,” she said.

Whether you are struggling with a new medical diagnosis, battling disordered eating, working to feel better in your own skin and understand the basics of proper nutrition, or hoping to approach weight loss from a new perspective, Northern Nutrition Group can help.

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