Generally, eating disorders are behavioral conditions characterized by a severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors, often which are associated with negative thoughts or mental illness. There are several different kinds of eating disorders, two of which are bulimia and anorexia. When comparing bulimia vs anorexia, many people tend to group them into one category because their symptoms are similar. However, understanding their differences is crucial to recognizing their symptoms and getting treatment. Today, we’re answering the common question: “what is the difference between anorexia and bulimia?” so you can better understand the signs and symptoms of each.
What’s the Difference Between Anorexia and Bulimia?
Let’s jump right into it. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes people to obsess about their weight and what they eat. Anorexia is identified by a distorted body image and an extreme, unwarranted fear of being overweight or gaining weight. People with anorexia may try to maintain a below-normal weight by starving themselves or over-exercising.
Bulimia nervosa is also an eating disorder, but it’s characterized by bingeing, followed by drastic methods to lose weight or avoid weight gain. People with this condition tend to binge eat, hence the name. They may purge (vomit), over-exercise, or fast to lose weight or maintain an unhealthily low weight.
If you compare anorexia and bulimia from the surface, they may seem pretty similar. However, there are some key differences between the two that play huge roles in diagnosing and treating them.
The difference between anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is that people with anorexia may adopt extreme diets or restrict their food intake to lose weight, while people with bulimia binge eat and then purge to lose weight and avoid weight gain. Bulimia episodes may involve eating excessive amounts of food in a short period and then purging or vomiting, using laxatives, or administering enemas to get rid of those calories.
It’s also important to note that while eating disorders are more common in women, they can occur in anyone. In the United States alone, 9% of the population, or 28.8 million people, will develop an eating disorder in their lifetime.
Without treatment, these disorders can become fatal. If you or someone you know has anorexia or bulimia, Banyan Treatment Centers offers eating disorder treatment in Philadelphia that provides the support you need to recover.
Differences in Symptoms
When comparing bulimia nervosa vs anorexia nervosa, you’ll also find that their symptoms are slightly different. The most common symptoms of anorexia are restricting food intake and extreme dieting. The main symptom of bulimia is purging the food or vomiting after binge episodes or excessive eating.
While some other symptoms and behaviors of these conditions may be done privately, the symptoms of both anorexia and bulimia are more likely to be apparent to others. Below are the differences between signs and symptoms of anorexia and bulimia and what you should look out for.
The symptoms of anorexia range include behavioral, emotional, and physical changes that may become more apparent the longer the individual goes without anorexia treatment. These signs may become more obvious to loved ones over time.
Some signs of anorexia include:
- Talking about weight or food often
- Not eating or eating very little
- Refusing to eat in front of other people
- Wearing baggy clothes to hide their body
- Isolating from loved ones
- Suicidal thoughts
- Thin, brittle, or dry hair
- Feeling faint, dizzy, or weak
- Swollen joints
- Growth of fine hair all over the body
- Stopped or irregular menstrual cycles
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness. In fact, anorexia’s mortality rate is 12 times higher than the death rate of all causes of death in females aged 15 to 24 years old.2 While many people with anorexia nervosa die from health complications caused by starvation, others die by suicide.
Symptoms of bulimia vary from person to person, depending on the frequency and severity of purging. Repetitive vomiting causes stomach acids to constantly come up into the throat and mouth. This can wear down tooth enamel, increase the likelihood of tooth decay, as well as it can create throat problems.
People with bulimia nervosa may also utilize laxatives to lose weight. Over time, repeated use can lead to chronic gastrointestinal problems.
However, it’s also important to note that not all people with bulimia purge after binge eating, a disorder known as non-purging bulimia. People with this condition may use other means, such as diet pills, stimulants, fasting, skipping meals, and excessive exercise to lose weight.
Some common signs of bulimia include:
- Swelling in the cheeks or jaw
- Broken blood vessels in the eyes (this gives a bloodshot-eye appearance)
- Acid reflux
- Severe dehydration
- Extreme concern or obsession about body weight
- Often going to the bathroom right after eating
- Excessively exercising
- Mood swings
- Poor body image
- Decreased interest in activities they once enjoyed
Differences in Diagnosis
Another main difference between anorexia and bulimia is their criteria for diagnosis. If your doctor suspects that you have an eating disorder, they’ll run several tests and look out for particular symptoms.
In addition to running lab tests to rule out any other possible causes for weight loss, they may also ask you to fill out a mental health questionnaire. In diagnosing an eating disorder, your doctor will also utilize the criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.
Below are the individual criteria for diagnosing anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
- According to the DSM-5, to be diagnosed with anorexia, you must meet the following criteria:
- Restriction of food or energy intake, causing significantly low body weight relative to age, sex, development, and physical health
- Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming overweight, even if they’re underweight
- Disturbance in the way the person perceives their own body shape or weight, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial about the seriousness of their current low body weight
- Even if all of these criteria are not met, you may still be diagnosed with an eating disorder. Atypical anorexia is a similar condition in which the person meets the criteria for anorexia but isn’t underweight despite extreme weight loss.
- DSM-5 uses the following criteria to diagnosis bulimia nervosa:
- Recurrent episodes of binge eating (characterized by eating an abnormally large amount of food within any two-hour period) and feeling that you can’t stop eating or control what or how much you’re eating
- Recurrent inappropriate compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain or to lose weight, such as self-induced vomiting (purging); misusing laxatives, diuretics, diet pills, or any other medications; fasting; or excessive exercising
- The occurrence of binge eating followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviors at least once a week for three months
- Influence of body weight and shape on self-evaluation
Eating Disorder Support
While there are similarities between anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, they usually present themselves in different ways. Regardless, both conditions are serious and should be treated as soon as possible.
Finding anorexia and bulimia nervosa treatment can save your life. If you or someone you know has anorexia, bulimia, or other similar conditions, Banyan Treatment Centers Philadelphia offers eating disorder programs that can help.
In addition to eating disorder support, we also offer Philadelphia drug treatment to help those who have become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Addiction often co-occurs with eating disorders as a result of stimulant abuse to lose weight.
- To learn more about our services, contact our
- NIH - Mortality rates in patients with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. A meta-analysis of 36 studies
- DMH - Eating Disorder Statistics