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The prevailing point of view among people who aren’t part of the treatment industry (or patients themselves) is that eating disorders are something that only happens to young adults. Unfortunately, these kinds of misconceptions can lead to missing the telltale symptoms of binge eating disorder and other kinds of eating disorders in populations that don’t fit that mold. Binge eating disorder treatment centers treat people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and races. It’s time the world became more aware that BED and other eating disorders affect everyone, and not only young people.

This becomes even more important when you consider that treatment methods for eating disorders MUST be personalized. A treatment program appropriate for a young woman with bulimia nervosa will of course be quite different from one designed for an older man who has atypical anorexia nervosa. But even with people who have the same disorder, their ages, health status, mental health situation, and other factors all come into play. That’s why binge eating disorder treatment can’t only be focused on young people – it has to be designed with older clients in mind as well.

The Onset of Binge Eating Disorder

Unlike anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, which are more well-known but according to statistics are less common than BED, binge eating disorder doesn’t as frequently start during the teenage years.  It usually begins later, in the twenties or even thirties. There are some factors in the development of binge eating disorder that make it more likely to begin after adulthood:

  • Binge eating episodes are often related to hunger pangs caused by dieting
  • People often being to gain weight after age 40 as their metabolism naturally slows down
  • “Cheats” on a diet often become secretive, which is a sign of binge eating disorder

It can be subtle, and the individual might not even notice it, but these factors can quickly turn into a disorder.  In many older people who are beginning to experience a decreased metabolism, it’s natural to begin to gain weight. This often prompts them to begin dieting, as we’ll see. In most cases, dieting is healthy enough (although mounting evidence is starting to show it can promote unhealthy attitudes about food and eating), but it is present in almost every case of eating disorder.

Binge Eating Disorder, Dieting, and Weight

We all know that people tend to slow down a bit as they get older – not only in terms of athletic abilities but also in terms of metabolism.  A slower metabolism means calories are processed more slowly, and that can mean gaining weight. Although it’s a natural stage of life, many people are unhappy with weight gain and will begin to look for ways to counteract this proves.Please note, this isn’t tied to any race or gender – people everywhere naturally gain weight as they enter middle age and beyond.

Just as naturally, people want their weight to stay low – for their health, and just as often because they want to look and feel attractive, even if that’s not incompatible with being overweight. The growing body positivity and body neutrality movements are beginning to change and challenge this perception, but it still persists.

The problem comes when dieting begins to inform disordered eating behaviors like fasting, refusal to eat a certain food or food groups, or binge eating episodes disguised a diet “cheats.” It’s extremely common for diets to cut out a food group like carbs, or promote detailed and strict calorie counting. These stringent restrictions can cause intense cravings to eat those “forbidden” foods.  The pressure of sticking to one of these diets can lead people to “cheat” and occasionally eat those forbidden foods. Is it a coincidence that the foods typically eaten during a binge eating episode are fatty, salty, and sugary “junk” foods like pizza or chocolates? We don’t think so.

The intake of these foods during binge eating episodes is likely responsible for one of the most common warning signs of binge eating disorder – constantly dieting but never losing weight.

Is There a Difference Between a “Diet Cheat” and BED?

Professional therapists and nutritionists at eating disorder treatment centers always put a focus on the idea that every person has a unique relationship with food and eating. Even though portion control and nutritional eating are certainly reasonable goals for people who want to control their weight, the aggressive nature of fad or yo-yo diets might counterintuitively lead to “cheating” or bingeing behavior. This can be compounded in older folks who expect to naturally gain some weight and try even harder to avoid it.

If you notice that a loved one (or yourself) is dealing with a situation where a “diet cheat” becomes a compulsive behavior, it’s a clear sign that a diet has blossomed into a disorder. Compulsive eating signs include:

  • Hidden food stashes
  • Lots of empty wrappers
  • Sudden weight gain (even while publicly on a diet)
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Secretiveness
  • Difficulty determining when they are full
  • Planning binge eating episodes

Are Older People at Risk?

Taking into consideration that everyone is prone to gain weight as they get older, it’s no surprise that they’re more likely to be on a strict diet.  Because of the well-established connection between body dissatisfaction, dieting, and BED, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the older population is at risk for compulsive eating and binge eating episodes. And since older people are not normally considered at risk for eating disorders, the symptoms of BED might go unnoticed by the friends and family of the person in question.>

Overcoming age biases in the diagnosis of binge eating disorder is paramount in getting help for these populations. Many doctors and even psychotherapists will applaud an older person’s decision to go on a diet. To be fair, weight control is important for overall health in older people, who may want to avoid heart, pulmonary, and GI diseases as well as weight-related maladies like type-2 diabetes. However, medical practitioners should also be aware that dieting, even if it’s encouraged by a doctor, will bear the risk of developing into binge eating disorder. Although the estimated percentage of people who will struggle with BED at some point in their lives seems small at 2-3%, remember that this comes out to millions of people in the United States alone.

The risk is not simply gaining weight, either. Studies have shown that people with binge eating disorder have higher rates of other mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorder. These can be difficult to treat on their own, and that difficulty is compounded by the social isolation and nutritional imbalances that binge eating disorder can create. Simply put, binge eating disorder is a serious mental health disorder and must not be ignored.

There Is Always Hope – And Treatment

If you or a loved one is older and showing signs of binge eating disorder, it’s worth contacting an eating disorder specialist or reaching out to an eating disorder facility to get a specialized diagnosis. They can help people of any age learn how to recover from binge eating disorder and return to a healthy, balanced life.

With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.