Dear Lesley: I Think My Mom Has an ED. What Should I Do?
Dr. Lesley Williams is a certified eating disorder specialist, family medicine physician and positive body image advocate. She co-owns Liberation Center, an eating disorder treatment facility, in Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. Williams is dedicated to ensuring that all women and men that struggle with eating and body image issues receive the help that they need to overcome and live happy, healthy lives.
Dr. Williams regularly educates other healthcare professionals about the diversity and dangers of eating disorders. She has made several media appearances as an eating disorder expert and regularly speaks at national conferences. Her most recent body image advocacy project is writing the children’s book, Free to Be Me. It encourages young girls and boys to love their bodies, no matter what size, and is scheduled to be released later this year.
I think my mom might have an eating disorder. She skips meals all the time and she's lost a lot of weight. When I try to talk to her about it, she brushes me off and says she's fine. What should I do?
It's always challenging to talk with someone who doesn't feel that their eating is an issue, especially if it's your mom. It is particularly difficult to approach the topic when the person you are speaking with feels that they do not fit the typical mold of what they envision when they think of someone with an eating disorder. Your mom may see eating disorders as being exclusive to adolescents and young adults. Despite this popular belief, middle-aged women are a rapidly growing population of women suffering with eating disorders.
A 2012 study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that 70 percent of women ages 50 and older are trying to lose weight, 60 percent say that their concerns about weight and body image have a negative impact on their lives and 13 percent have symptoms of an eating disorder, such as extreme dieting, binge eating, excessive exercise and/or purging. Being armed with this information may help you approach the topic with your mom and help her to see that women can struggle with eating disorders, regardless of their age.
When opening the discussion regarding your concerns, I find that people tend to be less defensive when you focus on the behaviors that you've seen that appear to be causing them distress. For instance, “I've noticed that you haven't been able to enjoy family dinners out like you used to. Is there something wrong?” Questions like that can help open the door to the conversation and put the emphasis on how the behaviors are negatively impacting her life.
So often, we focus on congratulating people about their weight loss instead of asking the right questions to gain a better understanding their motivation to lose weight. You could also ask your mom why she decided to lose weight and if she has a certain goal she is trying to reach. Often when we see women first engaging in eating disorder behaviors later in life it is motivated by a desire to improve their health.
There is so much emphasis in the media on the potential harm of obesity that people begin to believe that losing weight is the key to living longer. They don't realize that there are serious medical dangers associated with eating disorders. In fact, multiple research studies have demonstrated that being slightly overweight is associated with a higher life expectancy.
Urging your mom to be evaluated by an eating disorder specialist who can help assess whether her new lifestyle changes are helping or harming their health overall can be of benefit.
The good news is that moms typically want to be good examples of healthy living for their children. I have had countless patients who are moms and struggled with eating disorders for years before finally coming to seek help because their daughters expressed concern. If you approach your mom in a kind and loving manner, it will go a long way toward helping her recognize that her eating patterns may have crossed the line into disordered eating and she needs help.
Thanks for your question. It provides us with a great opportunity to discuss the fact that moms can struggle with eating disorders, too.
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