Those with bulimia nervosa may look like they're a healthy weight, but they have a serious eating disorder that shouldn't be ignored. What are the signs and symptoms?

A group of young people are playing games in a gym. Community connection can be crucial for eating disorder support.

What is bulimia?

Bulimia is a mental illness that makes sufferers obsessed with food, their weight, and counting calories. It’s often linked with low self-esteem, emotional problems and stress. People with bulimia can be a healthy weight, or even overweight, but the behaviour is unhealthy; they’re usually stuck in a cycle of binge-eating, and then ‘purging’ themselves of the calories by making themselves sick or using laxatives.

Why do people get bulimia?

Despite being called an ‘eating disorder’ the underlying causes of bulimia have little do with food – there’s almost always something else that’s making sufferers unhappy. Similar to anorexia, people control food as a way of feeling more in control of their lives. However, people with bulimia tend to have a more impulsive personality than those suffering with anorexia, which makes them more likely to binge or purge.

What are the symptoms of bulimia?

Bulimia has physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms.

Behavioural symptoms

  • Binging on a large amount of food, usually until you feel uncomfortable
  • Making yourself sick after binges
  • Taking laxatives or diet pills
  • Being secretive and lying about your eating habits
  • Spending lots of money on food

Physical symptoms

  • Bad breath and recurring mouth infections
  • Constipation and stomach pains
  • Puffy cheeks and dry or poor skin
  • Sore throat
  • Girls can have irregular periods
  • Problems sleeping
  • Fainting

Psychological symptoms

  • Obsessive thoughts about body image and dieting
  • Feeling emotional, depressed or guilty after binges
  • Feeling out of control of your life
  • Mood swings

Help with bulimia

Realising you need help – and being open to getting it – is the important first step. It is best to seek help early on, as soon as you first notice any symptoms. Try talking to someone you trust about what’s going on. We know this may be scary, but you deserve help and support for what you’re going through. If you’re not ready to talk to a close friend or family member, we recommend you speak to your GP as soon as you feel able so they can refer you to best person to help. There are also plenty of online support groups that offer advice via email and over the phone – Beat (beating eating disorders) has a helpline: 0345 634 7650, Monday to Wednesday, 1pm – 4pm.

What are the risks of having bulimia?

Lots of people recover from bulimia and go on to have a healthy life and a healthy relationship with food.

However, there are some health implications to binging and purging if you do it for a long time. Persistent vomiting can erode your teeth enamel causing tooth decay. If you’re female, bulimia can affect your periods and potentially affect your fertility. It also causes stomach problems, for example, using laxatives regularly can give you permanent constipation.

If your bulimia is severe, vomiting and taking laxatives can result in kidney damage, an abnormal heart beat, fits and muscle spasms. Given these are long-term risks it is really important to get help as soon as you notice any symptoms.


Next Steps

  • Beat help people overcome eating disorders through helplines, online support and self-help groups. Call 0808 801 0677 or, if you're under 18, call their Youthline on 0808 801 0711.
  • Men get eating disorders too (MGEDT) run discussion boards for men with eating disorders where you can get peer support.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.


Updated on 05-Jul-2016