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Bulimia is an eating disorder in which someone eats a lot of food in a short amount of time and then purges the food from the body. It is more than just a problem with food -- this disorder often has roots in psychological problems. Treating it involves confronting the underlying psychological issues as well as teaching a person how to eat normally again.

What Is Bulimia?

Bulimia nervosa, typically just called bulimia, is a type of eating disorder. Someone with bulimia eats a lot of food in a short amount of time (this is called bingeing) and then purges in an attempt to not gain weight. Purging might be done in the following ways:
  • Making oneself throw up
  • Taking laxatives, pills, or liquids that increase how fast food moves through the body.
A person with bulimia may also use these ways to prevent weight gain:
  • Exercising a lot
  • Eating very little or not at all
  • Taking pills to pass urine.

What Causes It?

Bulimia is more than just a problem with food. Purging and other behaviors to prevent weight gain are ways for people with bulimia to feel more in control of their lives and to ease stress and anxiety. While there is no single known cause of bulimia, many things may play a role in its development:
  • Biology. There are studies being done to look at genes, hormones, and chemicals in the brain that may have an effect on the development of, and recovery from, bulimia.
  • Culture. Some cultures in the United States have an ideal of extreme thinness. Some women may even define how beautiful they are based on how thin they are.
  • Personal feelings. Someone with bulimia may feel badly about herself, feel helpless, and hate the way she looks.
  • Stressful events or life changes. Things like starting a new school or job, being teased, or experiencing traumatic events like rape can lead to the onset of bulimia.
  • Families. The attitude of parents about appearance and diet affects their children. Also, a person is more likely to develop bulimia if a mother or sister has it.


(Click Bulimia Causes for more information on this topic.)


Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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