What is bulimia?
It is the shortened term for an eating disorder called bulimia nervosa.
What characteristics are associated with it?
A person with bulimia usually engages in episodes of binge eating followed by the purging methods he/she has devised to prevent weight gain. The bulimic attempts to rid the body of the ingested food by purging. Purging takes the form of self-induced vomiting, the use of diuretics (water pills), or the heavy use of laxatives.
There is also a nonpurging type of bulimia. The person with the nonpurging type of bulimia will fast for prolonged periods or exercise intensely to keep from gaining weight. The bulimic is often concerned about body shape and has an intense fear of weight gain. Therefore, the characteristics associated with bulimia include binge eating followed by attempts to keep from gaining weight. Binge eating is described as the ingestion of excessive amounts of high caloric food. When bulimics binge, they feel out of control, and their serious attempt to keep from gaining weight by purging offers them a form of control. Following an episode of binge eating, bulimics may totally stop eating and fast for a day or more.
Are there genetic factors associated with it?
Yes, people with bulimia occasionally have close relatives who have eating disorders. Also, relatives of bulimics may abuse substances such as alcohol or have mood disorders like depression.
Does it affect males, females, or both?
Very few males suffer from bulimia. Over 90% of bulimia is found in females.
At what age does it appear?
Bulimia usually begins in adolescence or the early adult years.
How often is it seen in our society?
About two (2) out of every one hundred (100) adolescent girls have some form of bulimia.
How is it diagnosed?
Frequently, the bulimic attempts to hide her abnormal eating patterns. Family members, friends, or medical care givers may suspect an eating disorder and encourage the bulimic to seek professional help.
A mental health professional may diagnose bulimia by taking a careful personal history from the client/patient. It is important to the therapist to learn the details of that person’s life. It is also very important not to overlook a physical illness that might mimic or contribute to this psychological disorder.
The diagnosis of bulimia is made when the history reveals that the person eats a large quantity of food within a two hour period which is followed by a sense of lack of control. The person then tries to prevent weight gain by inducing vomiting, overusing laxatives, using diuretics, and/or enemas. The person may also engage in fasting or excessive exercise. Also, the person with suspected bulimia will be overly concerned about body shape and weight. In order to make a diagnosis of bulimia, this behavior must occur at least twice a week for a period of three months.
How is it treated?
Bulimia is often treated by helping the individual establish a healthy body concept and learn correct eating habits. Usually this is accomplished through therapy which includes an educational focus. Part of that education emphasizes the destructive nature of the bingeing and purging pattern.
A cognitive behavior approach, group therapy, family therapy, and/or the use of medications may be used. Most patients with bulimia can be treated as outpatients.
What happens to someone with bulimia?
Unfortunately, there have been no long term studies focusing on the course of bulimia. We know that it is not unusual for people with bulimia to have periods of remission. Some of the complications associated with bulimia include inflammation of the esophagus and dental cavities which are caused by repeated vomiting.
What can people do if they need help?
If you, a friend, or a family member would like more information and you have a therapist or a physician, please discuss your concerns with that person.
Developed by John L. Miller, MD