Bulimia nervosa (usually just “bulimia”) is a dangerous eating disorder characterized by the binge and purge cycle. A teen who has bulimia will binge- eat an extremely excessive amount of food- and then immediately purge- eliminate the food from their system. Bulimia in teens is generally rooted in an intense fear of gaining weight, but it can also be linked to emotional and mental issues, such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or anxiety disorders. If you suspect that your teen could be suffering from bulimia, you need to address the issue promptly. Bulimia is a compulsive behavior, and as such, it can be extremely difficult to stop without professional help. Before you take any drastic steps, however, it is important that you attempt to better understand the eating disorder. Below you will find the top three most important basic facts about bulimia:
1. It’s different than what most people think.
Most people have heard of bulimia, but few people understand the specifics of the disease. Bulimic teens, for example, are usually not extremely thin, and in fact, bulimia most often affects teens of normal weight and body type. Some are even overweight. A bulimic teen is therefore much harder to distinguish from the crowd than, say, an anorexic teen. Another misconception involves the binge and purge cycle. The binge component of the cycle does not involve simply eating too many helpings at dinner. Rather, bulimics describe the compulsion to binge eat as an irresistible urge to consume all food in sight as quickly as possible. The bulimic does not care if the food is healthy or unhealthy, cooked or uncooked. A great many bulimics even report eating food from the trash. They are only able to stop once they have eaten to complete fullness.
Another misconception that most people believe is that after binging, bulimics purge the food from their system by forcing themselves to vomit. Although this is the most common method of purging, other methods are also used. Laxatives and excessive, vigorous exercise, for example, are two other common ways of purging. Again, this is different from overeating at dinner and then exercising later to burn off the calories. Rather, when a bulimic purges via exercise, they often exercise for hours at a time and to complete exhaustion. Exercising to purge becomes their obsession; they’ll skip plans with family, outings with friends, or even shifts at work to ensure that they can purge themselves of the calories they’ve consumed.
2. It’s difficult to spot.
As noted above, bulimics are often of normal body weight (and sometimes even overweight), and as such, it can be very difficult to tell whether or not a teen is suffering from bulimia. Just because a teen is not extremely thin, however, does not mean that they are not susceptible to bulimia’s many serious side effects. An overweight bulimic is just as unhealthy as a severely underweight one. Therefore, as a concerned parent, family member, or friend, look for the following signs of bulimia:
- Disappears immediately after meals
- Complains of chronic sore throat
- Has an increased number of cavities (due to tooth enamel eroding from stomach acid)
- Suffers from gastrointestinal problems, such as heartburn
- Often has bloodshot eyes
- Has swollen glands in their neck or face (due to the salivary glands enlarging from vomiting)
- Purchases laxatives or enemas regularly
- Uses laxatives or enemas more than once a week
- Obsesses about weight
3. It’s very dangerous.
If your teen is exhibiting a number of the above indicators of bulimia, then it is crucial that you act to stop this problem. Bulimia, even among teens who maintain a healthy body weight, is extremely dangerous and can lead to a multitude of health problems, including the following:
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
- Eruption of the esophagus or esophageal cancer
- Tears in the lining of the stomach
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Chronic kidney problems or kidney failure
- Irregular heartbeat or cardiac arrest
If you suspect that your teen may be bulimic, it is usually necessary to seek professional help. Bulimia, like all other compulsions is very difficult to cease, and by attempting to solve the problem alone, you could cause more harm than good to your teen and to yourself.