Skip to content Skip to navigation

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder and mental health condition.

People who have bulimia try to control their weight by severely restricting the amount of food they eat, then binge eating and purging the food from their body by making themselves sick or using laxatives.

As with other eating disorders, bulimia nervosa can be associated with depression, low self-esteem, alcohol misuse and self-harm.

Bingeing and purging

Eating disorders are often associated with an abnormal attitude towards food or body image. Everyone has their own eating habits, for example, people with a food intolerance need to avoid eating certain foods to stay healthy. However, people suffering from eating disorders tend to use their eating habits and behaviours to cope with emotional distress and often have an abnormal or unrealistic fear of food, calories and being fat.

Because of this fear, people with bulimia nervosa tend to restrict their food intake. This results in periods of excessive eating and loss of control (bingeing), after which they make themselves sick or use laxatives (purging). They purge themselves because they fear that the bingeing will cause them to gain weight, and usually feel guilty and ashamed of their behaviour. This is why these behaviours are usually done in secret.

Such binge-purge cycles can be triggered by hunger or stress, or are a way to cope with emotional distress.

Warning signs

Signs of bulimia nervosa include an obsessive attitude towards food and eating, an overcritical attitude to their weight and shape and frequent visits to the bathroom after eating, after which the person might appear flushed and have scarred knuckles (from forcing fingers down the throat to bring on vomiting).

Who is affected by bulimia nervosa?

As with all of the eating disorders, women are much more likely to develop bulimia than men. However, bulimia nervosa is becoming increasingly common in boys and men. Recent studies suggest that as many as 8% of women have bulimia at some stage in their life. The condition can occur at any age, but mainly affects women aged between 16 and 40 (on average, it starts around the age of 18 or 19).

It is estimated that a fifth of the 1.6 million Britons suffering from some form of eating disorder are male.

Bulimia nervosa can affect children, but this is extremely rare.

What to do

If you have an eating disorder such as bulimia, the first step is to recognise that you have a problem and visit your GP for a medical check-up and for advice on how to get treatment. If you think someone you know has bulimia nervosa, talk to them and try to persuade them to see their GP.

There are also many support groups and charities you can approach for help. The first step towards getting better is to recognise the problem and to have a genuine desire to get well.

There is strong evidence that self-help books can be effective for many people with bulimia nervosa, especially if they ask a friend or family member to work through it with them. If this is not suitable or is unsuccessful, your GP can refer you for treatment to an eating disorder service, where you may be offered a structured programme of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Some people may also benefit from antidepressant medication (fluoxetine), as this can help to reduce the urges to binge and vomit.


If you would like further information, please consult the 'helpful links' section on this page.

Fact Zone

Bulimia can occur at any age, although most cases affect women who are aged 16-40.
Body dysmorphia is an anxiety disorder where the individual spends a lot of time feeling worried about their appearance and having a distorted view of how they look.
The first step to overcoming conditions such as bulimia is for the individual to recognise that there is a problem and for them to have a genuine desire to get well.
Bulimia mainly affects women, but it is estimated that a fifth of those suffering with an eating disorder are male.
Studies suggest that as many as 8% of women may suffer with bulimia in their lifetime.
Signs of bulimia may include: an obsessive attitude towards food and weight, fluctuating weight, episodes of over-eating and starvation, disappearing soon after eating.
Bulimia can often occur during stressful periods of change and traumatic experiences such as death or divorce, or significant life events like getting married or leaving home.
Individuals with bulimia may try to control their weight by restricting their food intake, then binge eating and purging themselves by making themselves sick or taking laxatives.
Binge-purge cycles seen in bulimia can be associated with hunger, stress or as a method to cope with emotional distress.
Eating disorders such as bulimia are associated with abnormal attitudes towards food and an abnormal view of the body.


Helpful Links