Bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa may seem like polar opposites. After all, bulimia nervosa involves binge eating, while anorexia nervosa involves food restriction. When it comes to bulimia vs anorexia, the two disorders have more in common than you might think. The warning signs and symptoms for both are similar. The myths and misconceptions of both are similar too.
Let’s take a closer look at the differences between the two eating disorders as well as what they have in common.
Defining Bulimia and Anorexia
The definitions of bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa show the differences between the two disorders. Both are serious conditions. Bulimia nervosa is a cycle of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or severely restricting food intake. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by severe food restriction. This could be limiting the amount of food or types of food.
The diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa, according to the DSM-5, the manual used by mental health professionals, include “low body weight” but does not define “low”. The DSM-5 also makes allowances for Individuals who are not at “low body weight.”. This is referred to as “atypical anorexia.” According to the National Eating Disorder Association, “Research studies have not found a difference in the medical and psychological impacts of anorexia and atypical anorexia.”
In other words, atypical anorexia and typical anorexia have the same impact. For the purposes of our discussion, both fall under the umbrella of anorexia nervosa.
Bulimia vs Anorexia: Common Symptoms
Although the way the two eating disorders manifest are a bit different, many of the symptoms and signs are the same. Symptoms for both disorders may show behaviorally, physically, or both. Behavioral symptoms include:
- Being preoccupied with food, body size, and/or dieting.
- Being unusually focused on body size or weight.
- Skipping meals or eating very small meals.
- Restricting foods to certain food types or groups.
- Ritualizing food, such as only eating food in a specific order or not letting food touch.
- Withdrawing from friends and family.
- Withdrawing from activities previously enjoyed.
- Frequent changes in mood.
Physical symptoms include:
- Gastrointestinal issues.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Weight fluctuations.
- Missing periods.
- Difficulty concentrating.
Those with bulimia nervosa may show signs of binge eating, such as hiding food or leaving empty wrappers or containers.
Bulimia vs Anorexia: Common Causes and Risk Factors
Nobody knows exactly what causes eating disorders. Researchers think it may be a combination of genetics, psychological factors, and societal influence. For example, according to NEDA, those with a close relative with an eating disorder are more likely to develop one themselves. Similarly, those with a close relative with a mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or addiction, are more likely to develop an eating disorder.
When it comes to psychological traits, perfectionism is common. No one can be perfect all the time, but many of us expect ourselves to perform perfectly all the time. This extends to having the “perfect” body or following the “perfect” diet. These unrealistically high expectations of ourselves can lead to disordered eating.
Dissatisfaction with our bodies is another common factor. The media sets the standards for what is seen as the ideal body, but for most of us, that body is unattainable. Although more body types are slowly being included in movies, television shows, and advertising, we still have a long way to go.
These unrealistic standards also lead to weight stigma and weight bias. Those of us who are in higher-weight bodies may have experienced bullying or teasing growing up. According to NEDA, more than 60% of people with an eating disorder said the bullying contributed to their disorder.
Bulimia vs Anorexia: Common Myths
When it comes to eating disorders, myths abound. Here are a few of the most common myths and misconceptions around bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa:
Myth #1: It’s the parent’s fault.
Parents, and mothers in particular, have been blamed for their children developing an eating disorder. Although family dynamics might play a role, parents are not to blame.
Myth #2: It’s a choice.
Nobody chooses to develop anorexia or bulimia. Both conditions are complex and multi-faceted, and no one can just “get over” them. Recovery takes time, and often requires professional intervention.
Myth #3: Only teen girls have eating disorders.
Although adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders, anyone can develop one. This includes people of all genders, orientations, sizes, and backgrounds.
Myth #4: People in higher-weight bodies can’t have anorexia or bulimia.
People of all sizes can develop anorexia and bulimia. In fact, people in higher-weight bodies often have a more difficult time getting diagnosed because of this stereotype. Eating disorders are serious, and they can have a negative impact on the health of someone in a larger body. A person in a larger body who has anorexia or bulimia needs assistance and deserves recovery. They shouldn’t be encouraged to continue disordered eating simply because they are losing weight. Losing weight is not inherently positive for people in higher-weight bodies.
Recovering from Anorexia or Bulimia
The good news is that people can recover from anorexia and bulimia. It takes time, and often requires professional treatment. Many treatment options are available. Most involve a combination of medical care, counseling, education, and working with a nutritionist. Treatment may also involve supportive family members in counseling and education.
Although anorexia and bulimia are different, they are essentially branches of the same tree. Both conditions are serious, but recovery is possible.