Separating myth from fact is the first step toward helping more people with bulimia seek the professional treatment they need.
With its place in popular culture, the public knows many details about what bulimia is and the effect it has on people. This information is helpful, as it can encourage people to recognize signs of the disorder and seek treatment when necessary.
Unfortunately, for all of the facts available, there are even more myths about bulimia circulating. Bulimia myths are dangerous because the misinformation may cause people to misunderstand the nature and impact of the condition. To stay safe and healthy, one must separate bulimia myths from facts.
Myth #1: Bulimia is all about food and weight.
Fact: Bulimia is about negative coping skills to manage unhappiness.
People may think that bulimia is a condition that centers around food. They think the person with bulimia is constantly obsessing about food, what they are going to eat, and the repercussions it will have on their health and well-being.
Other people may believe that those with bulimia are just interested in losing weight and achieving a certain number on the scale by any means. People accepting the myth think that once the goal weight is met, the eating disorder will stop.
Both parts of this myth are grounded in real information about the condition, but they completely miss the mark. The causes of bulimia are much more complicated than a desire to eat food or weigh a certain amount.
The attention paid to food and weight is only a symptom of the problem. The real source of bulimia is a combination of biological, psychological and social issues. Bulimia is characterized by the following triggers:
- Feeling inadequate
- Experiencing high levels of anxiety
- Having a low mood
- Judging oneself based on physical appearance
People with bulimia may have had a history of abuse or trauma and engage in bulimic behaviors as a negative coping skill.
Myth #2: Bulimia only affects young women and teenage girls.
Fact: Bulimia affects men and women of all ages.
People unfamiliar with bulimia may be influenced by the media portrayals showing only teenage girls with the condition. They may think that this is the only group with the disorder. Proponents of this myth may take it a step further in believing that only young, white women from upper-middle-class families have bulimia.
This myth has two parts because it insists that bulimia only affects young people and females. Based on this, males and older women are safe from the condition and need never worry about the eating disorder. The fact is that bulimia does affect a variety of people, no matter their age, sex, race or socioeconomic background. Like the trickiest myths, though, there is some truth.
Bulimia does affect young people and women primarily. People begin to show the symptoms of bulimia between puberty and age 40 but may continue to show bulimic signs into late adulthood. Also, bulimia in men is less common than in women, but about 9% of people with bulimia are men, according to the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
This particular myth about the effects of eating disorders is damaging because a male, an older person or a person from a group not commonly associated with bulimia may be less likely to seek help because they think their experience is odd. In reality, anyone can show the signs of bulimia at any time.
Myth #3: People with bulimia only purge by vomiting.
Fact: A person with bulimia may purge in many ways.
Purging is a core element of bulimia. After the person consumes large portions of food during a binge, they will often remove the food from their body by vomiting. Many believe that vomiting is the only form of purging a person with bulimia engages in, however, this is not true.
While purging is an essential aspect of bulimia and many people do vomit as a method of purging, there are several other behaviors and techniques people use to purge.
Alternative methods of purging include:
- Laxatives: Someone with bulimia may use laxatives to purge. Laxatives speed the food’s journey through the digestive tract. The less time in the body, less food will be absorbed, so weight gain is reduced.
- Compulsive exercise: Other people will exercise excessively to burn the calories consumed during purges.
- Diuretics: Some will use diuretic medications or avoid eating for long periods to compensate for prior food intake.
No matter the method, purging in any form is dangerous and unhealthy.
Myth #4: Bulimia is less serious than anorexia.
Fact: Bulimia is a very dangerous mental health disorder.
People may look at bulimia and think it isn’t very dire. They may think that it is much safer and healthier than anorexia because people with anorexia eat very little or not at all.
Trying to figure out if anorexia is worse than bulimia is like trying to decide between if a gunshot to the heart or the head is worse: both are very serious and produce negative outcomes.
Not only does bulimia significantly impact a person’s mental health, but it also affects their physical health as well. People with bulimia often experience unwanted health effects, like:
- Stomach damage from overeating
- Electrolyte imbalance, which can lead to a heart attack or heart failure
- Ulcers and throat damage from excessive vomiting
- In women, irregular periods or no periods at all
- Damage to teeth from stomach acid
- Problems with regular bowel movements, especially in those who misuse laxatives
- Injuries and fatigue from over exercising
People with bulimia have higher rates of suicide attempts and completed suicides compared to the general population. Also, bulimia has a standard mortality ratio (the number of observed deaths compared to the number of expected deaths) of 1.93, which is lower than anorexia at 5.86, but higher than many other disorders. Bulimia is one of the deadliest mental health disorders and should be taken seriously.
Myth #5: Bulimia is easy to recognize.
Fact: Bulimia is harder to spot than one might think.
With eating disorders or other mental health conditions, appearances are not always what they seem. It is usually difficult for someone to tell that another person has bulimia just by looking at them.
Like other eating disorders, there is secrecy linked to bulimia. Very quickly, the person becomes skilled at hiding their binging and purging behaviors while going out of their way to appear happy and healthy. Someone vomiting could learn to make excuses for their frequent trips to the bathroom after a meal. Someone using excessive exercise may appear as someone interested in improving their fitness.
Shame and guilt about the condition fuel the need to hide the behaviors associated with bulimia. People may not want to admit the severity of the condition to themselves or others in their life, and they may reject help.
Myth #6: Bulimia is a choice.
Fact: People with eating disorders become powerless to stop.
This bulimia myth shares many commonalities with the myth that people who are addicted to alcohol and other drugs could just stop anytime they wish. Experts in mental health and addictions know that every person with bulimia would love to stop the damaging cycle of binging and purging if they could, but the thoughts and compulsions to engage in the behaviors are too strong to control without professional help. The power of a person’s hereditary, mental health status and previous life experiences can keep them stuck in the pattern, regardless of how much they want to feel better.
Myth #7: Bulimia is just a phase.
Fact: Bulimia does not just go away on its own.
This myth implies that there is nothing to worry about, and with time, the phase will end independently. There is no need to react or seek out treatment. Just let the condition run its course. All bulimia myths are damaging, but this one is particularly problematic. Believing bulimia is “just a phase” minimizes the danger of the condition and eliminates the need for treatment.
The truth is that bulimia is very dangerous and requires professional mental health treatment to be resolved. Bulimia treatment is challenging because it must focus on changing thoughts and behaviors related to food, self-esteem and body image.
Unhealthy relationships with substances are more straightforward to treat since the goal is usually to abstain from alcohol or other drugs. One cannot abstain from food, though.
The good news is that people who receive treatment for bulimia and other eating disorders can reach and maintain a healthy weight. Bulimia recovery is possible for those dedicated to treatment.
If bulimia is affecting your life directly or indirectly, you are not alone. Unfortunately, substance use disorders frequently accompany eating disorders including bulimia, which makes treatment more complicated. Consider calling The Recovery Village today to speak to a representative about starting the treatment process for a co-occurring eating disorder and addiction.
American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition.” 2013.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. “Eating Disorder Statistics.” Accessed June 4, 2019.
National Institute of Mental Health. “9 Eating Disorder Myths Busted.” February 27, 2014. Accessed May 25, 2019.
Office on Women’s Health. “Bulimia Nervosa.” Accessed May 25, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.