Eating Disorder Awareness: Bulimia

The pressure to be thin in order to fit in is more extreme for today’s teenagers than it was for their parents and grandparents, often resulting in the development of eating disorder and the need for teen counseling.  The obsession with weight that so often contributes to the development of eating disorders like bulimia is starting younger and younger.  The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) found that almost half of girls in 1st-3rd grade wish they were thinner and by age 10, 80% of those girls will be afraid of getting fat.  By the time they reach college, more than 90% of them will have been on a diet at some point in their lives and 25% of them will be using the binge and purge cycle associated with bulimia as a way to manage their weight.

Statistics show that more than 80% of eating disorders start before age 20.   As many as 4% of women will struggle with bulimic behaviors at some point in their lifetime and since people with bulimia can be any weight, this eating disorder can be harder to spot than others like anorexia.  It is common, however, for people who are anorexic to also use bulimic behavior to control their weight.

What Bulimia Looks Like

People with bulimia can be any weight- from the kind of underweight associated with anorexia to obese.  Like other eating disorders, those with bulimia are often afraid of being overweight, obsessed with weight management, and always trying to lose weight so that they will be happier with their body.  However, the behaviors people with this disorder use to address those fears don’t generally result in weight loss by themselves.  Bulimic behaviors follow a cycle that starts with the binge.  During a binge, people will eat excessive amounts of high-calorie food in a short period of time and feel like they have no real control over their eating.  After bingeing, the person feels ashamed, disgusted, afraid, or guilty for consuming so many calories and purging feels like a way to rewind the clock and undo the damage.  Purging, which can occur through vomiting, abuse of laxatives, excessive exercise, or starvation, often relieves the anxiety and helps alleviate the negative emotions caused by bingeing.

The shame associated with bulimia often results in secretive behavior and people with the disorder may go to great lengths to hide their abnormal eating habits and purging behavior.   There are however, some signs that can point to a problem with bulimia, if you know what to look for.  People with this disorder are often preoccupied with food, may exercise compulsively for hours each day, frequently go to the bathroom directly after eating, and may take an excessive number of diet pills, diuretics, or laxatives.  There are physical signs as well, but they can be more difficult to spot.  They may have broken blood vessels in their eyes and swollen salivary glands at the corners of their mouths caused by vomiting, small calluses or cuts across their knuckles from inducing vomiting, and problems with their teeth like excessive decay, gingivitis, or loss of tooth enamel.

The Real Dangers of Being Bulimic

Like other eating disorders, bulimia can be dangerous and even life-threatening.  People with bulimia may experience problems with constipation, dehydration, hemorrhoids, and even pancreatitis.  Excessive vomiting can lead to serious damage to the esophagus including tearing and rupture in addition to permanent damage to teeth and gums.  Overuse of laxatives or diuretics can result in electrolyte imbalance, and dehydration.

How You Can Help

People who have eating disorders need the support of those around them.  If someone you know has an eating disorder, the best way to help is to educate yourself about the disorder and provide the support they need throughout their recovery.

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