When you think of eating disorders such as bulima or anorexia nervosa, do you think of your mother? If you do, you’re not alone. Here’s why moms struggle with eating disorders, and what you can do to help.
Perfectionism is common trait of women with eating disorders, and mothers aren’t immune! Exploring the causes, signs, and treatments of food and eating problems in moms.
Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating, or sleep eating problems aren’t just found in teenagers or young women. Many mothers — some with adult children — struggle with eating problems, and are reluctant to seek treatment or ask for help.
Researcher Kristine Rørtveit, who works at Stavanger District Psychiatric Centre in Norway, studied eating disorders in mothers as part of her PhD thesis at the University of Stavanger. Here’s a summary of her exploration of the causes, signs or symptoms, and treatments of eating problems in moms.
Causes of Eating Disorders
Many moms would love to parent their kids perfectly and raise happy, well-adjusted children, But, their need for perfection can lead to feeling out of control, which in turn can trigger control issues with food. Instead of being perfect mothers, they feel ashamed and inadequate, and fearful that their children might inherit their eating problems. So, mothers may turn to food for comfort and control (and food may become a source of shame and guilt).
A second possible cause of an eating disorder in your mom is an obsession with the body. Women may fear they’ll gain uncontrollable amounts of weight if they eat even the tiniest piece of food. According to Rørtveit, some women compare their bodies with everyday objects that surround them. For instance, one mom thought she was too big to pass through the doorway.
Others mothers report that they get a “kick” from their eating binges. A mother said she enjoyed the excitement of planning her food binge, and compared eating to doing drugs.
Signs of Eating Disorders
Mothers with food issues often dread meal times, even though they know how important family dinners are to their children’s upbringing. One mom said she’ll pretend to eat, only to throw up at the first chance she gets (a sign of bulimia nervosa or binge eating and purging).
Another mother says she is too exhausted to participate in her children’s everyday life. Sometimes she only manages to utter one-syllable words, such as “yes,” “no” and “good night.” A third mom couldn’t take part in her adult daughter’s wedding, saying she was “too trapped in my own system. Everyone else was full of emotions and expectations, but I was completely the opposite.”
Other symptoms of anorexia include distorted body image, disturbed thought patterns, and feelings of inadequacy. Many of the mothers in Rørtveit’s study are pleased with the way they manage to keep up appearances and live a seemingly normal life. One the other hand, their double lives are stressful and demanding.
“Eating difficulties, such as extreme dieting, compulsive overeating, and vomiting, are usually kept under the surface,” says Rørtveit. “Keeping up appearances, even in one’s own home, requires a lot of strength.”
Once the cause of an eating disorder is identified, the treatment may be more effective. However, if you mom is a difficult parent, then you need to incorporate additional strategies or treatments to help her.
Treating Anorexia, Bulimia, or Binge Eating Problem
According to the Norwegian Board of Health Supervision, between 0.2 and 0.4 per cent of the population is affected by anorexia nervosa, and 1-2 percent by bulimia nervosa. The majority of sufferers are women between the ages of 15 and 40.
Only 30 percent of anorectics and less than six percent of bulimics receive treatment for their condition. Women struggling with eating disorders may not feel motivated to seek psychotherapy. Also, feelings of guilt and shame may prevent moms from seeking help for their eating problems.
“Although eating difficulties are associated with shame, I believe a lot of women would like to be able to talk about their problems,” says Rørtveit. “Increased awareness and better care may mitigate the stigma, and inspire more women to seek help.”
For more help with emotional eating, overeating, or binge eating, read How to Stop Compulsive Eating – From All Alone to Passionate.
Source: University of Stavanger (March, 2010). “When mom has an eating problem.”
I'm glad you're here! My name is Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen; my husband Bruce and I live in Vancouver, BC with our critters. We can't have kids, and are learning to accept whatever life brings - both good and bad. I have an MSW (Master of Social Work) from UBC, and degrees in Education and Psychology. I hope you say hello below - I can't give relationship advice, but writing can bring you clarity and insight.