Bulimia - an Introduction

Bulimia nervosa is one of the most common eating disorders, and the number of cases appears to be on the increase. In this article, beat gives an introduction to the warning signs and effects of Bulimia.

Bulimia Nervosa

An estimated 1-3% of young adult women in the UK suffer from bulimia. Although the disorder was only officially recognised in 1979, the number of cases has increased rapidly, with a fivefold increase in bulimia between 1988 and 1993*. Like other eating disorders, it most commonly affects young women, particularly those aged 17-21.

The term bulimia nervosa means literally ‘the nervous hunger of an ox’. For people with bulimia, however, the hunger is really an emotional need that cannot be satisfied by food alone. After binge-eating a large quantity of food, a person with bulimia will feel an immediate urge to get rid of the food by vomiting or taking laxatives (or both), by starving or reducing food intake, or by working off the calories with exercise.

As with anorexia, people who develop bulimia come to rely on food as a way of controlling their lives. They often appear to be outgoing and self assured, even though they feel inadequate inside.

Could my child have bulimia?

For a parent, bulimia can easily go unnoticed because sufferers may not lose weight dramatically, and they may be secretive about their eating habits. Nevertheless there are some signs to look out for.

People with bulima often eat large amounts of fatty, carbohydrate-rich foods – as much as four times a normal portion. In some circumstances, they may resort to eating things like uncooked pasta, partially defrosted frozen food or condiments, or retrieve and eat previously discarded food. When they start to feel full, they will feel guily and attempt to purge their body by vomiting or taking laxatives.

It is important to know that everyone will have different symptoms. Some people will have a mixture of symptoms and you do not need to have all these symptoms to have an eating disorder.

The frequency of these bulimic cycles will vary from person to person. Some may suffer from an episode every few months or, in more serious cases, several times a day. Some will eat socially but may be bulimic in private. Many people do not regard their illness as a problem, whilst others despise and fear the vicious and uncontrollable cycle they are trapped in.

Signs to look out for

Behavioural signs 

  • Disappearing to the toilet after meals 
  • Bingeing and vomiting 
  • Excessive use of laxatives, diuretics or enemas 
  • Periods of fasting 
  • Excessive exercise 
  • Secrecy and reluctance to socialise 
  • Shoplifting for food or abnormal amounts of money spent on food 
  • Food disappearing unexpectedly or being secretly hoarded

Psychological signs

  • Uncontrollable urges to eat vast amounts of food 
  • An obsession with food, or feeling ‘out of control’ around food 
  • Distorted perception of body weight and shape
  • Emotional behaviour and mood swings 
  • Anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, shame and guilt 
  • Isolation, feeling helpless and lonely

The effects of bulimia on the body 

  • Fluctuating weight 
  • Sore throat, tooth decay and bad breath caused by excessive vomiting 
  • Swollen salivary glands making the face rounder 
  • Poor skin condition and possible hair loss 
  • Irregular periods 
  • Lethargy and tiredness 
  • Increased risk of heart problems and problems with other internal organs

It is important to know that symptoms will vary dramatically between different people. Some people will have a mixture of symptoms and you do not need to have all these symptoms to have an eating disorder.

If you think your child may have Bulimia, it can be hard to know how to help. Your child may deny they have a problem, or refuse to talk about it. Recovery can only be successful if your child wants to change, but there are plenty of ways you can support and guide them.

Speak to your local GP and visit the beat website for information on support and treatment services in the UK. You can find more advice in Eating Disorders and Anorexia.

*Source: beat

Related links

  • Anorexia: an Introduction: Probably the best-known eating disorder, anorexia nervosa affects 1-2% of women. beat, the national support organisation for people with eating disorders, gives an introduction to the warning signs and effects of anorexia.
  • Could my Child Have an Eating Disorder?beat shows how parents can support their children and help to treat an eating disorder, one small step at a time…
  • Forum - are you worried about your child's eating habits? Discuss your fears and worries in our forum

Find out more

  • Visit the beat website for information on support and treatment services in the UK

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