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Eating disorders: Not just for teen girls
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock

When Scott met his friends out for dinner, he’d make a stop on the way – to the drive-through lane of the local fast food restaurant.


Always “a big kid,” Scott (not his real name) weighed in at about 350 pounds by his early 40s. He didn’t just eat too much and too often; he suffered from compulsive overeating, an eating disorder in the same category as anorexia and bulimia. Millions of people in the United States have eating disorders, and not all of them are teenage girls. Increasingly, very young children, older women, and men are being diagnosed.


“I had a total lack of control,” says Scott. “I’d hide what I was eating. And the more I tried to stop, the more I tried to control it, the worse it got – the definition of any kind of addiction.”


Scott had already battled alcoholism, and with the help of AA, had stopped drinking. But without alcohol as an outlet for stress, Scott increasingly turned to food. “I had diabetes and insulin was not controlling it,” says Scott. “At some point, I realized I was dying. I thought, ‘I’m lucky if I’ve got 10 more years left.’ And the eating got worse.”


Scott had hit bottom, and spent six weeks as an impatient at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc. Known best for its mental health programs for adolescents, Rogers also treats adults like Scott.


Part of Scott’s recovery was the realization that the root of his eating disorder was emotional. “When you hide your problems, they come out in a strange way,” he says. “You find something to distract you from your feelings. One of the things you discover is that people who become addicts are always trying to do or be things that just aren’t ‘them.’ You have to go through a self-discovery process, and you can’t do that by yourself.”


When food (eating it, not eating it, or eating and purging it) becomes the center of someone’s universe, he suffers from an eating disorder. And eating disorders can affect men and women in all stages of life. Although a large proportion of those treated for eating disorders are teens, “there is a wide age range,” says Dr. Ted Weltzin, director of the eating disorders program at Rogers. “We see kids as young as 10 – and we get calls about kids even younger than that. And we see adults in their 40s and 50s.”


Some older adults are diagnosed with eating disorders after many years of dysfunctional behavior around food. Others don’t begin these behaviors until later in life. “Some of the factors are the same, regardless of age,” says Weltzin, “such as the desire to be thin. But older people might develop eating disorders as a result of stressors like divorce or job loss. Sometimes weight loss due to illness can develop into an eating disorder, and some people who have had gastric bypass surgery will develop the problem as well.”


An eating disorder will fall into one of several categories, explains Weltzin. There is anorexia, in which someone believes they are overweight (even when they’re not) and eats a minimum of food; bulimia, where they binge on high-calorie foods and then vomit or work out excessively; and “eating disorders not otherwise specified,” where they may binge without purging or purge without binging. In every case, like in Scott’s, food becomes an obsession, the overriding force in one’s life.


When teenagers are treated for eating disorders, the illness is often seen as a family disease and parents become part of the treatment program. With adults, the situation is different. “There’s less of a culture of the entire family dealing with the illness,” says Weltzin. “The spouse may be working, the kids may be away at school.”


In addition, eating disorders in adults are less likely to be recognized. “The fact that older people can have eating disorders is not in people’s minds yet,” says Weltzin. “And adults have more freedom to conceal things like binging and purging. They may live alone, and they’re not in school. If someone’s 16 and goes to the bathroom after every time they eat, and are obsessed with food and their weight, people might think, ‘She has an eating disorder.’ If an adult does the same, no one thinks about it. No one’s suspicious.”


As dangerous as eating disorders are for teens, they may be even more dangerous for adults. “When people are older, they face more medical complications,” Weltzin says. These include problems with the bowels, osteoporosis, dental problems, seizures and cardiac problems that can lead to death. (Terri Schiavo is believed to have suffered her heart attack as a result of bulimia.)


Anorexia and bulimia, in particular, have long been assumed to be diseases of privilege, experienced only by white girls from higher economic classes. But eating disorders “are found across the spectrum of income, ethnicity, and gender. They’re across the board,” says Weltzin. “And they’re less likely to be diagnosed if someone is African-American, older, or male.”


What should you do if you suspect that an adult you care about may have an eating disorder? “You can express your concern,” says Weltzin, “and suggest that they speak to a medical professional that is familiar with eating disorders.” Ultimately, though, an adult must decide for himself whether or not to seek help. Depending on the severity of the illness, a patient may undergo outpatient or inpatient therapy, and positive results may take months.


There is good news, however. Unlike drug addiction and alcoholism, “Complete recovery from eating disorders is possible,” says Weltzin. “And once someone has recovered, truly recovered, the rate of relapse is low.”


Three years after his treatment began, Scott is still working toward that recovery. “I still struggle to keep my weight down,” he says. “I see a counselor and I’m stable right now, but I’ve had my ups and downs. It’s going to take a long time to really reverse things, but I’m heading in the right direction.” 

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in The Phoenix. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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