Midlife eating disorders on the rise

For most of her life, Andrea Ethridge ate to make herself feel better. Depressed or lonely, it didn’t matter. The result was the same. She’d eat to soothe the pain.

She’d head to the refrigerator or pantry for her favorite comfort food or pull up to a fast-food drive-through after work. The binging would continue throughout the night. No amount of dieting or therapy helped.

Today, after nearly six months at The Renfrew Center in Sandy Springs, Ethridge said she’s finally on the road to real recovery.

Most people associate eating disorders with young women, but it’s a problem that also affects the middle-aged and men, said Jenifer Harcourt, site director at The Renfrew Center of Georgia.

To date, most of the attention around eating disorders has focused on anorexia and bulimia. But Harcourt said that binge eating — eating large amounts of food in a very short period of time — is being recognized more due to better education.

“They’ll eat 5,000 to 15,000 calories in one sitting and mostly in hiding,” Harcourt said. “It’s a coping skill to deal with negative emotions.”

Common triggers are relationship problems, menopause, career changes, divorce and the often turbulent mix of teens and aging parents.

Whatever the cause, Harcourt said, binge eating often goes unnoticed when it involves people like Ethridge — partly because midlife eating disorders aren’t on our radar and because those who have them no longer live at home with parents looking over their shoulder.

Since opening last May, Harcourt said the call volume to at Renfrew, the first to open in Georgia, is steadily increasing, particularly among women aged 30 and older like Ethridge.

“Right now, about half of our population is made up of women suffering from anorexia and the other half is bulimic and/or binge eating disorder,” Harcourt said.

Nationally, she said, there are 10 million people suffering from some type of eating disorders. Renfrew, which has eating disorder treatment facilities at 14 locations across the U.S., has had a 42 percent increase in the number of residential patients they see.

According to a 2012 survey of more than 1,800 U.S. women 50 and older, nearly 8 percent report vomiting, while 4 percent reported binge eating. Of the sample,nearly half of whom were of “normal” weight, 71 percent of women were trying to lose weight. More than one-third reported spending at least half their time or more in the last five years dieting; 64 percent said they think about their weight daily; and equal numbers reported feeling “moderately” to “extremely” upset if they gained five pounds. The findings were published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

“I’ve been dealing with this my whole life,” Ethridge said. “I came to a point back in the fall where I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to do something that was permanent rather than temporary.”

Ethridge and her counselor agreed she needed something different. The Renfrew Center, they believed, could provide that.

In mid-October, she enrolled in the center’s intensive outpatient program, a three-day a week session that includes dinner, individual and group therapy, meal support therapy and psychiatric consultation and access to a registered dietitian.

“What I really like about Renfrew is the focus not on weight loss, but what is really going wrong inside,” Ethridge said. “I don’t do the right thing every single time I have a decision to make, but I don’t feel alone in the battle.”

It used to be, Ethridge said, when a problem arose, she’d spend the day in front of the television with “lots of fast food.” Now instead of grabbing something to eat and pushing my feelings down, she said, she calls a friend or takes a relaxing bubble bath.

“It’s all good now,” she said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.