Fresh Outlook Foundation

THAT LAST 10 POUNDS: A Senior’s Story of Health After Disordered Eating

Fresh Outlook Foundation

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By Cara Brady

*Check out discussion questions after article

“Trapped in a lifestyle I knew was unhealthy and unsustainable”

Helen (not her real name) shakes her head when she remembers the years when disordered eating was a part of her daily life.

“I’m just sorry it took me 62 years to understand how to have a good relationship with food,” she said. Now, at 68, she is a healthy weight and moves with graceful energy.

“You can think of eating attitudes and behaviours on a spectrum,” explains Helen.

“On one end of the continuum there’s healthy eating, where people enjoy a variety of foods that satisfy their physical, psychological, social, and cultural needs. Far too few people live on this side.”

Disordered eating occupies the middle of the spectrum, and includes behaviours such as chronic dieting, overexercising, eating for reasons other than hunger or nourishment, or avoiding major food groups.

“For 40 years I struggled with disordered eating,” says Helen. “My weight management tool of choice was chronic dieting, which achieved the desired results. But I felt trapped in a lifestyle that was unhealthy and unsustainable.”

At the extreme end are eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and others. These medical conditions are diagnosed and treated by a GP, psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker with specialized training.

While often considered challenges faced by young women, disordered eating and eating disorders impact people of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, and cultures. In fact, they are increasingly prevalent in aging adults, particularly older women.


“My parents’ relationships with food weren’t helpful”

Disordered eating has a variety of triggers, including trauma, unhealthy role models, and pressure from peers and media. Sometimes the trigger is a need to feel control over self-image when other areas of life seem beyond control.

“I think a few things contributed to my unhealthy eating attitudes and behaviours,” says Helen. “First, I’m prone to depression and anxiety, which is common among people with these types of disorders. I’m also a Type-A personality with perfectionist tendencies.”

“My parents’ relationships with weight weren’t helpful either. Although my dad struggled with his weight, it was clear he wanted my mom to be slim. She carefully watched what she ate until the day she died.”

Helen remembers that, “the pressure started in high school with friends always talking about weight and dieting. When I was 16, I thought about making myself sick to get rid of what I’d eaten. I don’t know how I had heard about purging, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

She avoided disordered eating for the rest of her teens and through university. Then at 23, weighing 122 pounds, she thought she had to lose weight, so she went to a diet franchise and lost 10 pounds.

“It was that 10 pounds that almost every woman swears she’ll lose,” says Helen. “But in  my case I really didn’t need to.”

A few years later, she bought a diet franchise and saw that while it was fairly easy for her clients to lose weight, it was very difficult for them to keep it off.

“I felt like a fraud. I was taking people’s money, but not helping them achieve healthy outcomes in the long term.”


“I swore I would never weigh myself again”

“I was still obsessed about food, but I swore I would never weigh myself again. I thought maybe that was a good place to start in the move toward healthier eating. Instead, I became orthorexic, or fixated on the nutritional value of the foods I ate.

“Friends have since shared that they didn’t enjoy cooking for me because of all the foods I wouldn’t eat.”

While Helen gained weight over the next 15 years, she was comfortable not knowing how much.

“Then at 45 I divorced. Nothing had changed physically, but I suddenly felt old and frumpy. So, I joined a weight-loss program and again lost those pesky 15 pounds.”

“Yes, I started weighing myself again and then got caught up in the cycle of chronic dieting. The thought of gaining weight led to an underlying fear that drove many life decisions. I would cut back on calories for about five days and lose weight, then eat normally for two or three days and gain weight, then cut back again. It was exhausting, but it worked for me… the scale said so.”

“Not only did I like being thin, but I truly believed that to excel in my male-dominated industry I had to be slim, attractive, and well-dressed as well as competent and confident.”


“My body was trying to tell me something”

During that time, Helen remarried and was happy with the way she looked.

“Then, one time when we came home from a holiday, I couldn’t lose the few pounds I’d gained with my usual tactics.”

“At 62, I knew my body was trying to tell me something, that I had to start taking care of it.”

While researching disordered eating, Helen discovered “intuitive eating” as a way to transition from obsessive behaviours to a gentler, more holistic approach to self-care.

“Yes, I gained back the 15 pounds and a few more to boot,” says Helen. “But even so it was the beginning of an incredible change to my health, self-image, and sense of self-worth.”

“I learned to listen to my body, what it needs, and when it needs it. I also had help from a good therapist with experience in disordered eating. I saw my former behaviours for what they were… self-destructive and dangerous.”

Another thing prompted Helen’s change of heart.

“I swore my granddaughter would not grow up listening to me talk about weight, dieting, or anything negative about bodies or self-image. I wanted her to grow up loving herself the way she is.”

Helen thinks that senior women can also model positive body image and weight attitudes for other older women.

“As senior women, we need optimal nutrition to help stave off illness and support healthy longevity. At this point in our lives it should be about feeling good, being mobile, giving back, and not buying into what society thinks we should look like. I encourage seniors, particularly those living alone, to take the time and effort to eat well.”

Now that Helen truly enjoys food, she’s developing a newfound passion for cooking and baking.

“Yes, food nourishes our bodies, but I’m learning that it also supports our emotional, social, and cultural well-being.”

“You can stop denying yourself and enjoy the experience of food in all its aspects. We can learn from other cultures where food is a creative and social part of life. It is possible for anyone, at any age, to change their attitudes toward eating and nutrition for all their needs, by themselves or with help. Even a small change can make a big difference.”


“We are only human”

Having said all that, Helen had one small confession to make. It was about something she thinks might trouble many women as they heal from disordered eating.

“If I’m honest, I’d still like to lose 15 pounds. The difference is that I think of it only occasionally. And I’m not prepared to make the sacrifices needed to reach a goal that is driven by cultural expectations and not self-compassion.”

“I am still working hard to accept myself unconditionally. Maybe we all are. That’s alright. We are only human.”

Cara Brady has been a professional writer for newspapers and magazines for more than 30 years. She has always enjoyed helping people tell their stories.




Discussion Questions

The questions below will help stimulate discussion among family members, friends, groups of seniors, and with health care providers.

  1. Do you think most women have some concerns about their weight at some time in their lives?
  2. What do you understand the difference to be between average dissatisfaction with weight and body image and serious, even life-threatening medical conditions?
  3. What made Helen first aware of her body image and want to try to change it?
  4. What do you think about the ways she chose to make changes?
  5. Why did the changes seem to work at first but were not sustainable?
  6. How do you think Helen’s behaviour might have affected her daughters growing up?
  7. Helen is an attractive and professionally and personally accomplished woman. Other women might admire her, even envy her. Some might take her as a role model. Why do you think she’s found it difficult to accept herself for most of her life?
  8. Have you ever known anyone like Helen?
  9. Have you ever thought the way she did about body image and weight?
  10. Helen has found a way, with some research and professional help, to be healthy in body and mind. Might any of the things she learned be useful to you?
  11. Why does Helen occasionally, even now, think that she needs to lose weight?
  12. Do you think seniors at any age can make real changes in their eating habits and attitudes about eating and health?
  13. How does food support or detract from your emotional, social, and cultural well-being?
  14. What small changes could you make to eat in health ways?
  15. Is there a person or particular group of people who would benefit by you sharing this story?

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