If someone you know is one of the 4.2 percent of women in the United States affected by bulimia, find out how you can help them identify their disorder and get treatment.

The support of a friend or loved one is a valuable resource for someone living with bulimia. If you don’t live with an eating disorder, it can be confusing and frustrating to comprehend. However, understanding what your loved one is facing and educating yourself about bulimia can help benefit their recovery.

Understanding Bulimia Nervosa

If someone you know has an eating disorder they usually have extreme disturbances in their eating behaviors like :

  • Following inflexibly strict diets
  • Bingeing on food in secret
  • Throwing up after meals
  • Obsessively counting calories

It is important to remember when helping a friend that eating disorders are more complicated than just unhealthy dietary habits. Typically, at the center of every eating disorder there lies a distorted, self-critical attitude about weight, food and body image. These negative thoughts and feelings can cause harmful behaviors.

People with eating disorders use food to deal with painful, underlying emotional struggles. For someone living with bulimia, overeating or binging behaviors may temporarily soothe depression, anger or loneliness. Purging often follows to cope with feelings of weakness and self-loathing from overeating. The purging allows them to decrease their guilt from consuming extra calories and avoid weight gain by vomiting or taking laxatives. Over time, obsessions with food and weight can begin to control everything else in their lives.

Recognizing The Signs of Bulimia

In modern society, it is common for people to worry about their weight, what they eat, and how they look. This pressure to attain perfection is specifically true for teenage girls and young adults, who feel extra pressure to look attractive during a phase when their bodies are still developing. It can be challenging to tell the difference between an eating disorder and self-consciousness because of societal pressures.

Some signs and symptoms of bulimia can include:

  • Restricting food or dieting
  • Making excuses to avoid meals
  • Eating small  portions or only low-calorie foods
  • Banning entire categories of food like  carbs and fat
  • Obsessively counting calories, reading food labels and weighing portions
  • Taking diet pills, prescription stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin or illegal drugs like cocaine.

The Physical Signs of Bulimia

Your friend or loved one’s behaviors are not the only way to determine if they are living with an eating disorder. There are physical signs of binging and purging behaviors. Some physical signs of bulimia include:


  • Secrecy and isolation
  • Unexplained disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods
  • A lot of empty food packages, often hidden at the bottom of the trash or in their room
  • Hiding stashes of high-calorie foods like  junk food and sweets


  • Disappearing right after a meal or making frequent trips to the bathroom
  • Showering, bathing, or running water after eating to hide the sound of purging
  • Using excessive amounts of mouthwash, breath mints or perfume to disguise the smell Vomiting
  • Using laxatives, diuretics or enemas
  • Periods of fasting or compulsive, intense exercising, especially after eating
  • Frequent complaints of a sore throat, upset stomach, diarrhea or constipation
  • Discolored teeth
  • Significant weight loss, rapid weight gain or constantly fluctuating weight
  • Wearing baggy clothes or multiple layers in an attempt to hide weight

Where to Get Help for Bulimia

People with bulimia often live with a lot of guilt and shame as a result of their behavior. When approaching your friend or loved one, they may be defensive or deny that they have a problem. Remember that bulimia is a mental health disorder so talking to your friend requires that you are sensitive to their feelings.

Try to present your concerns in a nonjudgmental tone and listen to anything your friend may say with openness and respect. Besides offering them your emotional support, the most important thing you can do for them is to encourage treatment. The longer bulimia goes untreated, the more damage on the body and the more difficult it is to overcome the disorder. People with bulimia may also develop co-occurring disorders like depression or addiction. Someone who has bulimia may turn to substances like alcohol to numb their guilt or stimulants to help them control their appetite.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use and co-occurring disorder like bulimia, The Recovery Village can help. People who have addictive symptoms and a co-occurring disorder can receive comprehensive treatment from one of the facilities located across the country. To learn more, call The Recovery Village today to speak with a representative.

a woman with blonde hair and a black shirt.
Editor – Jennifer Kopf
Jennifer Kopf is a Florida-based writer who likes to balance creative writing with helpful and informative pieces. Her passion for helping people has translated into writing about the importance of treatment for substance use and mental health disorders. Read more
a woman in a yellow top posing for a picture.
Medically Reviewed By – Krisi Herron, LCDC
Krisi Herron is an Adjunct Psychology Professor, a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and a freelance writer who contributes to several mental health blogs. Read more

Harvard Mental Health Medical School. “Treating bulimia nervosa.” Published: September, 2009. Accessed January 2019

Medical Disclaimer

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.