Bulimia is a common eating disorder, affecting roughly 1 in every 25 women and girls at some point during their lifetime. A great many more will dabble in the behavior without developing the full-blown disorder.
What Is Bulimia?
Bulimia is when a person tries to avoid the guilt and calories that come from eating by purging the food shortly thereafter, usually by throwing it up. A person with bulimia may also use laxatives or other medications to try and flush food from their system.
Bulimia is often related to binge eating. A person who is trying to diet loses self-control and goes on a binge. Feeling guilty afterwards, they then try to rid their body of this overindulgence by vomiting what they just ate. But bulimia can also arise among those with normal eating habits who are trying to lose weight. It becomes a type of weight management strategy wherein they can still eat normally and enjoy the pleasures of food but hope to shed some weight in the process.
Those afflicted with bulimia are often overweight. So from outward appearances you’d never suspect they struggled with an eating disorder. So it can be a lot harder to spot than anorexia, and a person may engage in bulimia for years without ever being discovered.
Of all the eating disorders, bulimia is probably the most straightforward. It’s a utility behavior, designed to serve a specific purpose. The purging is a means to avoid calories, plain and simple. If you can direct a person towards better methods of weight management, it’s usually the easiest eating disorder to treat.
That said, bulimia can also be habit forming, and it’s a habit driven by guilt and shame. Though the act of purging isn’t in and of itself important to a person, the sense of relief from shame they receive from it can still make the habit difficult to stop.
Risk Factors For Bulimia
A number of things can make a person more prone to developing bulimia:
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- A history of anxiety disorders
- Being overweight or obese
- Having a poor body image or low self-esteem
- A history of being teased or scrutinized for one’s weight
- Coming from a family that places a heavy emphasis on weight or looks
Bulimia’s Harmful Effects and Consequences
Bulimia can lead to a number of different health problems:
- Damage to tooth enamel (caused by regurgitating stomach acid when vomiting)
- Inflammation of the esophagus
- Low blood potassium levels, which can lead to dangerous, abnormal heart rhythms and potentially cause a heart attack
- Increased risk of diabetes
In some respects bulimia can be even more dangerous than anorexia, because it leads to wild swings in blood pressure and blood nutrient levels. When a person eats and then vomits shortly thereafter, it disrupts the steady absorption of nutrients, resulting in a shock to the body. This cardiovascular whiplash is what leads to heart problems and the development of diabetes.
Signs & Symptoms of Bulimia
Here are some of the signs that someone you love is struggling with bulimia:
- Frequently excusing themselves to the bathroom after eating
- Fluctuating weight
- Complaining about one’s weight or expressing concerns about being fat
- Being secretive about eating or preferring to eat alone
- Unexplained mood swings
- Fingers that are raw from using them to induce vomiting
- Swelling of the salivary glands in the cheek
- Showing an obsessive interest in food
Since bulimia is often connected to binge eating, you might also refer to the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder.
To meet the diagnosis of bulimia, a person must have had two or more bulimic episodes per week over the course of at least 3 months. If a person has had fewer than this they won’t qualify for a bulimia diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it seriously or sit back and wait for their disease to progress. Any type of intentional purging is cause for concern, especially in children and teens.