September 7, 2021

Bulimia vs Anorexia: What’s the Difference?

Bulimia vs Anorexia

Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa are the most common eating disorders. They affect all ages and genders. However, how does someone distinguish between the two? The key difference in identifying one or the other is identifying their food-related behaviors. In this blog, I will review bulimia vs anorexia and explain the key differences between the two.

Both disorders are body image focused and aim to restrict weight gain. A person affected by either eating disorder may strive for perfection along with pleasing others. While eating disorders do not discriminate between age and gender, women are disproportionately affected. There are many reasons why an individual may be affected by anorexia or bulimia; Such as problems stemming from emotional well-being, genetics, and societal pressures. 

While there are many similarities between the two, it is important to be able to distinguish between anorexia and bulimia so you or someone you know can get the proper treatment needed to combat the disorder.

What is Bulimia?

Bulimia Nervosa is when an individual eats an excessive amount of food, then either purges the food or engages in excessive exercise to work off what they consumed and find relief. Individuals will be secretive of their eating habits and will find it difficult to control the amount they are consuming. Similarly to most eating disorders, feelings of loss of control and shame will overcome them as they engage in a binge eating episode.

Purging Type Bulimia

Purging type bulimia is the most common form of bulimia. The individual will engage in a binge eating episode, and following it they will purge or misuse diuretics and/or laxatives. Purging type bulimia can lead to numerous oral and digestive health problems. It can affect the gums and make teeth brittle, in some cases leading to loss of teeth. Prolonged vomiting can cause long term throat and/or esophagus damage such as a sore throat or bleeding. The stomach can tear in more extreme cases due to constant purging. Individuals can also experience constipation and acid reflux.

Non- Purging Type Bulimia

Non-purging type bulimia involves the individual engaging in excess exercise in order to compensate for their eating episode. Because exercising is not seen as shameful, it can make it harder to identify a person struggling with non-purging type bulimia. Most people will assume that these individuals are highly self conscious. Other symptoms more easily identifiable are extreme dieting and use of dietary supplements, tracking calories, and becoming agitated or anxious if they are unable to engage in excessive exercise.

What is Anorexia?

Anorexia Nervosa is when an individual restricts their food intake in order to control their weight. Some ways that they will restrict their intake is by skipping meals, and extreme dieting habits. Due to the lack of nutrients they receive, individuals affected by anorexia will become malnourished overtime depending on the severity of their disorder. They will try to conceal their body in baggy clothes, their hair and nails will be brittle, and their overall physical appearance will start to decline. Severe malnourishment can also lead to death. 

Similarities of Bulimia and Anorexia

As we discussed before, Bulimia and Anorexia are the most common eating disorders. Therefore, they have many similarities in terms of social, psychological, and physical effects. The following section will examine where these two eating disorders overlap. 

  • Distorted body image
  • Dehydration
  • Worrying about weight and body image
  • Talking badly about their weight or body image
  • Mood changes
  • Depression and Anxiety
  • Social isolation
  • Death

Differences of Bulimia and Anorexia

As stated previously, in order to get you or someone you know on the right path to recovery, distinguishing between the two disorders is imperative. Below we will discuss the main differences between the two:

  • People affected by bulimia will engage in binge eating episodes before relieving themselves, whereas people affected by anorexia will severely restrict their eating habits.
  • Purging type bulimia can lead to oral health problems.
  • Anorexia has a higher mortality rate than bulimia.
  • Bulimia is more common
  • People affected by anorexia will avoid meals and make excuses to loved ones or friends in order to conceal their lack of eating.
  • People affected by bulimia will eat excessively in secret. 
  • Anorexia tends to cause rapid weight loss, and bulimia tends to cause severe weight fluctuations in short periods of time.
  • Infertility can develop when affected by anorexia. Similarly, women can stop menstruating.
  • Typically people with bulimia will disappear after meals.

Causes of Bulimia and Anorexia

Like most eating disorders there are many different causes behind Bulimia and Anorexia. While the exact cause of bulimia and anorexia are not known, many factors can play a role, such as:

  • Emotional trauma
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Ideologies of body image
  • Genetic predisposition

Treatment Options for Bulimia and Anorexia

Properly identifying which disorder you or a loved one may have is the first step to recovery. While treatments vary in terms of psychotherapy approaches, both disorders use the same medication groups; Such as, mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and antipsychotics. Both disorders can be treated with outpatient methods, though more severe cases can require intensive inpatient methods. The main focus of treatment is to help the person struggling establish a healthy relationship with food and themselves.

When treating bulimia, experts will use the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach. This approach emphasizes teaching the individual to reframe their negative thought process to gain a better understanding of what they are experiencing. In doing so, the individual can develop a greater sense of confidence, gain a better sense of motivations and behaviors of themself as well as others, and be able to cope effectively not only with their disorder but with difficult situations they may find themselves in overtime.

Similarly, experts might use CBT to combat anorexia as well. However, another effective way of treating it is by using the Maudsley approach. It is a family based approach typically used on teens experiencing anorexia, but can also be used on adults. Loved ones are guided by a family-based therapist who encourages them to support their loved one experiencing anorexia in a more active and consistent role. They are able to do so by preventing detrimental food-behavior compensating methods, such as avoidance of food and extreme dieting. Overall this method aims to help the person affected by anorexia gain weight and improve their eating habits.

Seeking Treatment for an Eating Disorder in Miami, Florida

If you or a loved one suffer from an eating disorder, it may seem like a hopeless journey full of pain and disappointments. But I’m here to help, I’ve dedicated my life to helping individuals overcome deadly eating disorders like binge eating disorder – a full recovery is within your grasp. There is hope!

I’m Dr. Amy Boyers, a Clinical Psychologist in Miami who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders (all types) and other serious, long-term mental health conditions, including addictions, bipolar disorder treatment, and OCD. I offer personalized and sophisticated eating disorder treatment services, individual and family psychotherapy, family member support and education, in-home meal support, coordination of a treatment service, and much more.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Dr. Boyers is currently available for second opinions and consultations only. She is not available to take on therapy cases at this time but is willing to provide a consultation and help you find an appropriate team or resources in the community.