We Need to Talk About Eating Disorders in People Over 30

For many people, the term “eating disorder” conjures up images of young teen and early twenty-something females.

But the reality is that an eating disorder may be something you never really “grow out of” or ever fully recover from, even if only tiny elements of it (i.e. a perpetual conscious awareness of calories) linger. Not to mention, eating disorders can surface later on in life, when high school and university have long become foggy memories. The problem is that most of our attention and treatment on eating disorders is centred on young teens, when the fact remains that women and men in their 30s and beyond (especially in our age of diet fads/health trends that can easily go too far) are struggling in silence and shame.

In recent years – likely fuelled by an image obsessed culture that is propelled by social media – doctors have noticed a spike in the prevalence of eating disorders in women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

Kyla Fox, a Toronto-based eating disorder survivor/specialist and founder of The Kyla Fox Centre, says that she sees many women at the Centre who are over the age of 30, who struggle with various eating disorders (patterns of restriction, binging, and purging), stressing that it’s a myth to assume that mostly narcissistic teens are affected by eating disorders. Personally, I’d take it a step further and call it a stigma – and a pretty alarming one at that.

“The majority of clients we see at the Centre are in their mid 20s to late 30s,” says Fox “Why? Because life is very complex during these years for women. It is in these years that women feel the pressure to ‘know’ everything about who they are, what they want to be, and how they want to live. But women are often still searching for the answers to these questions. Controlling the body (or conversely being out of control with food and the body), becomes the manifestation of these unknown questions/life circumstances.”

According to Fox, eating disorders are always about much bigger, deeper, emotional and psychological issues (at any age); for women in their 30s, this is especially the case at a time of life when they are confronted with so much to consider. “Eating disorders become a tangible place to act out these unknowns,” she says. It even affects good, reliable moms who appear to have it all together. I read an article recently about an Australian mom who even faked cancer to disguise an eating disorder (which eventually killed her).

The bottom line is that nobody is exempt from having an eating disorder. “Because eating disorders often have a very long shelf life (as they are intrusive and pervasive mental health issues), many women move through the various stages of their lives without having ever actively addressed their eating disorder harm,” says Fox. “This means that when they become moms, pregnant and/or begin work, their behaviours of harm with food and their body remain or worsen. We see so many women at the Centre who are functioning in the world and have such a strong ability to hide and ‘normalize’ their eating disorder patterns.” These women have actively maintained their eating disorder for years and often with nobody knowing.

This is not to say that the initial development of eating disorders during these life stages does not occur – it does – however what is more common is their existence due to it never having been addressed (at all or in ways that were actually helpful) throughout the earlier stages of life, according to Fox. I’ve definitely seen eating disorders bred in adolescent angst can become lifelong battles for many females – and that is likely because they were never treated. According to research from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANAD), only 50 per cent of people who suffered from eating disorders in their youth report being “cured in adulthood.” As people get older and life gets harder, a buried eating disorder could easily resurface as the result of a traumatic trigger.

We live in a youth and looks-obsessed culture in which 30 is the new 20 and 40 is the new 30, resulting in more pressure for both men and women to look the part (especially if they’re single and ready to mingle via a dating app filled with carefully curated photos). And young typically means fit and thin. Let’s not forget that a new fad diet seems to emerge every other week. I know a few over-30 men who have suffered from some sort of eating disorder – from bulimia (a disorder typically associated with females) to excessive exercise and an ironically unhealthy obsession with the mirror and publications like Men’s Health. 

While we’ve come along way in eroding the long-held mental health stigmas – thanks, in part to initiatives like the upcoming annual Bell Let’s Talk campaign – we’d be kidding ourselves if we said that there wasn’t still shame associated with eating disorders and mental health in general. “There is an empathic stance, culturally, for those affected by a disease like cancer, but when it comes to mental health issues and eating disorders (which most people still believe are about vanity and self-image), there lacks that same quality of empathy and understanding,” says Fox. “Moreover, ‘coming out’ with this kind of suffering is often met with judgment and this leaves people feeling alone, further inadequate, and ultimately silenced.”

Now that all eyes are turned to mental health initiatives, we need to do more to address eating disorders in age groups across the board. Currently, neither provincial nor federal government agencies track the rates of eating disorders or their associated mortality rates in the way that they do for other medical or mental health disorders. Not to mention, we are unable to track the frequency at which family doctors treat patients with eating disorders because Ontario lacks any diagnostic codes for the purpose.

Add this to the fact that the (highly damaging) prissy adolescent girl stigma persists with regards to eating disorders and we have a problem that is in major need of correcting. Further understanding and research into the prevalence of eating disorders later in life – in men and women – would offer a deeper understanding of the disease on the brain and what can be done to combat it.