What is Bulimia?

Bulimia nervosa, more commonly referred to simply as bulimia, is a common eating disorder that is considered to be less physically dangerous than anorexia.

Bulimia has some similarities to anorexia. Sufferers fear becoming fat, though they are usually normal weight and are sometimes even overweight. While those with anorexia will severely cut calorie, those with bulimia fall into what is sometimes called a ‘binge and purge’ cycle. They will binge on fattening food, such as cakes or ice cream. After bingeing, they feel guilty, which leads to feeling depressed. They respond to their depression by trying to purge those calories, by making themselves sick, using laxatives or diuretics, starving themselves, exercising excessively, or some combination of these. They can only sustain this for a little while before they are back to bingeing. Bulimia most commonly affects women in their 20s.

Causes of Bulimia

It’s not clear what exactly causes bulimia, but many sufferers also have very low self-esteem. It can be triggered by normal life stresses, such as family tensions, breakups, or sexual abuse. People who have a family history of bulimia are four times more likely to be sufferers themselves.

Dieting history can also be a factor. Those people that have had a history of failed dieting, can go on to develop bulimia. For some people, easy access to foods that you like to binge on can be a problem. For example, quick snack foods.

Recently, there have been increased calls for social media giants to help protect people from unnecessary exposure to diets, weight loss pills and fitness apps. In the UK a man called Daniel Magson has started to campaign to protect people with anorexia and bulimia who he feels are being targeted with dangerous dieting adverts on Facebook.


Symptoms of bulimia include:

  • Excessive laxative use
  • Vomiting after eating
  • Immediately using the bathroom after eating
  • Irregular or skipped periods
  • Swelling of the face or fingers (caused by frequent vomiting)
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Stomach Ache
  • Bowel damage caused by excessive laxative use
  • Bingeing, or consuming large amounts of food quickly

People with bulimia often feel ashamed and will hide the behaviour at all cost.


Early diagnosis and treatment of bulimia is essential to avoiding long term damage, though there are no specific diagnostic tests. If you have symptoms of bulimia, your doctor may want to do blood tests to check for anemia or other signs of damage.


The primary goal of treatment is to get the person onto a normal eating schedule of three meals a day without purging. Counselling can help the sufferer get to the root of the behaviour, while antidepressants can help ease depression that may be contributing to the cycle.


Untreated bulimia can lead to disorders of the stomach, bowel, or kidneys due to laxative use. Frequent vomiting can cause damage to the esophagus and may even increase the risk of esophageal cancer. Stomach acid can also cause cavities, bad breath, sores in the mouth, sore throat, and damage to the stomach.


Your GP should be your first port of call if you or anybody close to you is affected by Bulimia. Support groups such as Beat may also provide help and advice. Beat is the UK’s leading charity supporting anyone affected by eating disorders or difficulties with food, weight and shape.

Photo Credit: Aimee Heart / Flickr CC

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This post was originally published in December 2015 and has been updated regularly since.

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