Hands holding fork
Illustration: Rachell Sumpter
Janice Bremis was stunned the day her husband came home and announced that, after six years of marriage, he was moving out. When he did finally pack up and rent a room from a friend, Bremis had to come to terms with the fact that the relationship was over. As her steady life radically changed, the 41-year-old latched onto the only activity that gave her any sense of stability: strict calorie counting.

It wasn't the first time Bremis had turned to rigid self-control to get through a difficult phase. Decades earlier, when she'd struggled to maintain good grades in her first year of college, the self-described overachiever had used food as a reward. "I wouldn't allow myself to eat until I'd finished my homework or written the paper I'd been assigned," says Bremis, now 57. "And then when I started to lose weight, seeing the results of my discipline felt empowering. Before I knew it, I'd morphed into anorexia."

By the time Bremis was 19, she weighed just 80 pounds, down from 155. Luckily, in her junior year of college she sought professional help and, with the support of an outpatient program, slowly began to recover. By her mid-20s, she felt that her body issues were under control, and she maintained a slender but not unhealthy 140 pounds on her six-foot frame well into midlife.

But once her divorce was final, her anxiety shot to an all-time high. Soon she'd lost a couple of pounds. Then a few turned into ten. Before long, her low-cal diet tipped beyond aggressive self-restraint, and the anorexia she'd battled nearly two decades earlier was back in full swing. With it came deep shame. Nine years into her relapse, the embarrassment of living with an "adolescent" illness became unbearable. "One of my closest friends said, 'Gosh, you'd think at 50 you wouldn't be worried about your weight,'" Bremis recalls. "I couldn't stand that feeling of stigma."

Bremis's struggle and her friend's response speak directly to why midlife eating disorders are so often cloaked in secrecy: Many people, including the sufferers themselves, believe these are strictly teenage problems. But research indicates how misguided that assumption is. A groundbreaking 2012 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that about 13 percent of women over 50 exhibit eating disorder symptoms. To put that in perspective: Breast cancer afflicts about 12 percent of women. No wonder the findings caused a stir.

Next: The three types of women affected by eating disorders