What Are the Symptoms of Bulimia?

If you are concerned that someone you love -- or maybe even yourself -- has bulimia, would you know the signs?

It’s very common for people to keep their bingeing and purging a secret. And unlike anorexia, someone with bulimia may not lose a lot of weight, so it can be harder to tell what’s going on.

According to the National Institutes of Health, you have this eating disorder if you do the following at least twice a week for 3 months:

You binge eat. This means that you eat much more food than usual, beyond the point of feeling full, in just a short time -- especially snacks or other foods high in calories. During a binge, you feel like your eating is out of control.

You “purge.” After a binge, you try to prevent gaining weight from all the food you just ate. You might make yourself vomit or take laxatives, diuretics, enemas, or other medications. You also might use fasting or too much exercise as part of this harmful strategy.

If you have bulimia, your thoughts about your body are distorted. Your thoughts about body weight and shape determine how you feel overall.

You probably share some common feelings that people with anorexia may have. For example, you may fear gaining weight, and always want to lose weight. But people with bulimia tend not to be as concerned about their weight as those with anorexia.

It can also be harder to tell, from the outside, that someone has bulimia. Unlike with anorexia, you might be able to keep your body weight in the normal range, with your bingeing and purging a secret. But to you, bingeing can make you feel ashamed, while purging brings a temporary and false sense of relief.

Complications

Bulimia can go along with depression.

It can also cause problems with your tooth enamel, due to the stomach acids from vomiting often. You may get gum infections, swollen facial glands, cavities, and discolored teeth, for the same reason. Your throat may be sore and inflamed, too.

Also, bulimia is hard on your digestive system, which can be upset by the condition, especially if you abuse laxatives.

You can become dehydrated due to all the vomiting or use of laxatives. This can cause imbalances in certain minerals, called electrolytes, such as calcium and potassium. Low levels of potassium or sodium can cause potentially life-threatening heart or kidney problems. Abnormal electrolyte levels, as well as drops in blood sugar levels, can also cause seizures.

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Call Your Doctor If:

  • You find yourself secretly binge eating, then vomiting or using laxatives
  • You avoid eating in front of other people
  • Your child has an unreasonable fear of being fat and thinks she's fat when she's not
  • Your child avoids eating with others or often visits the bathroom immediately after meals

When to Call 911

Sometimes, people with bulimia have depression as well as their eating disorder. Call 911 if you or someone who has this condition are thinking about committing suicide.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on August 08, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Mental Health: “Eating Disorders: About More than Food.”

Halmi, K. Eating Disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, and Obesity. Yudofsky, Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry, 4th edition, 2003. 

Brewerton, T. Clinical Handbook of Eating Disorders: An Integrated Approach, Edition 1, Marcel Dekker, Inc, 2004.

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