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

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?

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 purge cycle of binge-eating, and then ‘purging’ themselves of the calories by making themselves sick or using laxatives.

Read more about low self esteem and coping with stress.

Why do people get bulimia?

Despite being called an ‘eating disorder’ the underlying causes of bulimia have little to 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

  • Episodes of binge eating 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, body shape and dieting
  • Feeling emotional, depressed or guilty after binges
  • Feeling out of control of your life
  • Mood swings

Read more about mood swings and body image issues.

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 the 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.

Bulimia control and treatment

Once you’ve made the first step by starting to look for help you’ll most likely be taught several techniques for bulimia control as part of your treatment. Whilst it may be daunting at first, remember that it is possible to successfully treat bulimia and regain a healthy relationship with food. Here’s what to expect.

Bulimia treatment tends to focus on some type of behavioural therapy to help you understand where your behaviour comes from and how to control it. This includes learning about how to monitor what you’re eating to help you spot any changes, planning your meals and watching out for patterns in your behaviour and things that act as triggers. You may be offered cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is a type of talking therapy that can be really helpful for all sorts of things. Read more about cognitive behavioural therapy here.

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 bingeing 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 heartbeat, fits and muscle spasms which can be potentially life threatening. Given these are long-term risks it is really important to get help as soon as you notice any symptoms. The first step is looking for help and beginning to talk about it.

More help with eating disorders

The Mix has lots more resources available on eating disorders which you can find on the links below. We also offer free counselling, a 24/7 crisis messenger and a daily helpline. If you need someone to talk to please don’t hesitate to speak to our team today. 

Beat helps 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.

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.


Updated on 05-Jul-2016