When you hear about eating disorders, you almost always think of a teenager or very young adult. The scary truth is that countless adult women also suffer with eating disorders, and oftentimes they don’t even realize they have one. The most commonly reported eating disorders in adult women are anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and over-exercise bulimia.
>> Read more: The New Anorexic: No Longer a Teenage Trend
Dawn Wiggins, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, says that binge eating was not previously classified as an eating disorder but will soon be included in the newest edition of the diagnostic manuals that is used in the field of psychology. “This is a disorder where food is used to soothe out of control feelings,” Wiggins said. “Binging is done in secret and the individual feels totally driven by the desire to eat, much like a drug addict to use drugs.”
Dr. Kim Dennis, a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders, says that women over 35 are especially prone to developing an eating disorder because they tend to experience several life transitions that serve as eating disorder triggers. Some of these triggers include martial problems or divorce, job loss, relocation, birth of a child, children leaving the home, terminal illness in a parent or loved one and the death of friends or family members. Marjorie Nolan, MS, RD, CDN, believes that many of these women have been battling eating disorders since their teenage years but it has only now begun to greatly affect their lives and the lives of those people closest to them.
While it is unfortunate is that many women do not realize their eating disorder has become a problem, or that they even have one. There are several signs that can help them, as well as their loved ones, identify an eating disorder. According to Dr. Dennis, these signs include:
- Changes in social functioning, such as decreased time spent with family or friends, skipping meals with family or not eating/barely eating at all
- Drastic weight changes
- Cutting out certain food groups from their diets (such as carbs or fats)
- Increasing amount of time spent exercising
- Engaging in extreme dieting or exercise behavior
- Dependence on diet pills or laxatives
- Using prescription medications to lose weight (specifically ADHD medications, most of which are stimulants)
- Abusing prescription medications to control appetite or lose weight
- And even getting a naso-gastric tube inserted, in order to lose 10-20 pounds rapidly.
Click “next” below to learn about treatment for adult eating disorders.
Once a woman who is suffering from an eating disorder recognizes and accepts that she has a problem that requires professional help, there are several different levels of treatment. Dr. Dennis briefly describes each of these treatment methods from least intensive to most intensive:
- Outpatient therapy with an eating disorder counselor and outpatient sessions with a nutritionist with experience in treating eating disorders. The more intensive outpatient programs typically meet for three hours, three to five days per week and sometimes include a supported meal.
- Day treatment programs (also called partial hospitalization programs) consist of therapy all day with two or three supported meals, anywhere from three to seven days per week.
- Residential treatment centers include 24/7 care. Their environments are set up to foster recovery. For example, typically bathrooms are locked after meals to help people abstain from purging.
- Inpatient treatment is highly structured and may include tube feedings and inpatient medical treatment to stabilize any life-threatening effect (like heart rhythm abnormalities, blood pressure abnormalities, electrolyte abnormalities and dehydration).
“Treatment for eating disorders is difficult because it involves developing a healthy relationship with food — something that we need to survive!” Wiggins said. “It is not something that we can eliminate like drugs or alcohol. It can be a long process best supported through the help of professionals, with a holistic approach.”
Nolan agrees, and emphasizes that a multi-team approach is best and often recommended for women battling any type of eating disorder.
While many women do not realize they even have an eating disorder, many other women are suffering from them don’t seek treatment because insurance rarely covers residential or inpatient treatment programs. However, there are many free or low-cost group therapy or support groups for anorexia, bulimia and other less common eating disorders in most communities. The biggest hurdle to getting help is the unwillingness to realize the disorder is a problem. Because eating disorders are such private battles, it is very hard for people to admit they have a problem.
“Until a person hits bottom and sees a need for help, usually with a lot of help from friends and family and professionals, there is no hope for recovery,” Dr. Dennis said. “Once a person becomes aware that there might be a problem and becomes open to receiving some help, recovery is a real life possibility, and the sky is the limit in recovery!”
Many thanks to our experts:
Dr. Kim Dennis is the medical director of the Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, and provides a holistic approach in her practice of psychiatry for patients battling eating disorders, addictions, trauma and PTSD.
Marjorie Nolan, MS, RD, CDN, is an ACSM Certified Health Fitness Specialist and the National Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.
Dawn Wiggins is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who owns and operates a private practice in Boca Raton, Florida. She also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology with a minor in Child and Family Sciences.