Cynthia M. Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at...

Cynthia M. Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the book, "The Woman in the Mirror." Credit: Newsday HANDOUT

Are you a woman older than 50 trying to lose a few extra pounds? That can be a good thing. Unless it becomes a very bad thing.

A new study found that 13 percent of women 50 and older exhibited symptoms of eating disorders. Even women who didn't have an eating disorder worried — sometimes obsessively — about their body image. About 79 percent said their perception of themselves was affected by their weight or shape, and 62 percent said their weight had a negative effect on their lives. About 64 percent thought about their weight every day. These negative feelings often are the impetus for destructive eating behaviors.

"The take-home message for the boomer generation is every couple years we age and we expand," says Cynthia Bulik, the lead researcher. "The distance between what we see in the mirror and the societal ideal gets bigger, and that leads to dissatisfaction." Bulik, a professor of psychiatry and nutrition at the University of North Carolina and director of the school's eating disorders program, has written several books on the subject. Bulik looks at older women and body images in her new book, "The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are."

Many of the women in the study have struggled with eating disorders since they were young. For some, the problem disappeared for decades until something, such as divorce or weight gain after menopause, triggered a relapse. Others never had an eating disorder until after they turned 50. The study focused exclusively on women, although Bulik notes that men are not immune.

Among the most common eating disorders are anorexia, where the person obsesses about weight despite already being extremely and unhealthily thin, and bulimia, characterized by binge eating followed by forced vomiting. While eating disorders are typically thought of as problems for young women or teenage girls, when they occur later in life they can be even more harmful. "Eating disorders take a huge toll on your body physically," Bulik says. "As we age, our bodies are less resilient."

Bulik's main message to older women: "Get past the appearance focus." Stop obsessing about your weight and shape and think more about your health. "We need to get people to focus off the number on the scale and more toward what's your cholesterol and what's your blood pressure," she says.

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