Eating disorders have historically been associated with pre-teen and teenage girls, but these days they are a growing problem among a much wider age range. Not only is disordered eating appearing in younger and younger children, but it is also an increasing concern among older women.
Eating disorders are increasingly affecting women often considered to be “too old” for anorexia or bulimia nervosa—women in their 30s and even women in their 40s and 50s. The latest data from the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland reported that eating disorders among women between the ages of 25 and 35 have outpaced eating disorders among teenagers in that country. While this is not quite the case in the U.S., the trend of eating disorders appearing later in life definitely holds true.
Exactly why this new trend has appeared is more complicated. Increasing pressure to defy aging, concerns over food sensitivities and allergies and the reemergence of old symptoms may all play a role in disordered eating among adult women.
The pressure to be thin is something that women and girls are exposed to starting in childhood, which raises questions about why someone who maintained healthy eating habits throughout adolescence and early adulthood would suddenly develop an eating disorder. But there is arguably greater pressure now than ever before to stay thin and young-looking long after we reach the years when a bit of extra weight, wrinkles and a few gray hairs used to be acceptable. Popular sayings like “30 is the new 20” may be meant to reassure people, but they can also pose an unrealistic challenge to others who interpret this to mean that aging naturally is no longer acceptable.
Some experts believe that concerns about food sensitivities and food allergies may be influencing adult eating disorders and that even trends toward healthy eating can cause some people to go to extremes.
Food sensitivities and allergies are more prevalent than ever, and for someone with a genuine sensitivity or intolerance, restricting certain foods usually leaves the person feeling better and healthier than ever before. However, a necessary restriction on diet can sometimes be the spark that sets off additional restricted eating behaviors, until the person is eventually starving herself of necessary nutrition.
Medically necessary restricted diets can sometimes develop into larger societal trends among people who become convinced that certain foods are the root of all health problems, as is currently the case with the gluten-free trend. While restricted eating is a necessary step for some people, such trends can cause others to develop the belief that highly restricted diets are the healthiest choice and allow this thinking to take over their relationship with food.
This is particularly true for women who have “all or nothing” personality characteristics and tend to take things to the limit once they begin. Even the current national movement toward healthy eating and regular exercise—a positive and necessary thing—can be dangerous for people with a tendency toward disordered eating. For these women, the growing emphasis on making better food and exercise choices can seem to be justification for taking dieting and exercise to the extreme.
Some experts also say that what we are really seeing, in many cases, is more women who dealt with disordered eating as adolescents experiencing a reemergence of symptoms in adulthood. While the same factors discussed earlier may still be influencing the reappearance of these symptoms, it does not represent quite as significant a shift in historical trends as if all of these women were developing eating disorders for the very first time in their 30s.