A guide for young people Bulimia

Worrying about your weight and going through cycles of eating a lot of food in a short space of time ("bingeing") and then doing things to "compensate" for this ("purging") can be signs of the eating disorder bulimia. Find out more about bulimia and how to get help.

What is bulimia?

A young person sits in a room wearing a black hoodie and their hair tied back. They are looking to the right with their hand curled over their mouth, lost in thought.

Bulimia is a type of mental health condition called an eating disorder. People with bulimia can get into a cycle of “binge-eating” (over-eating) and “purging” (trying to control your weight by making yourself sick, using laxatives, or over-exercising).

Bulimia can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or background.

Although many of us will eat a bit more than usual sometimes, this is different to bingeing. Bingeing is not enjoyable; in fact, it is often very distressing and you do not feel in control of it. During a binge, you may struggle to stop even if you want to, and you may feel disconnected from your body – some people may even struggle to remember what they’ve eaten afterwards. It is usually a way of dealing with difficult feelings and emotions, and is often followed by a desire to purge.

Purging is a way of trying to make up for that overeating. You may feel guilty about what you have eaten and feel the need to “get rid” of it after a binge. This could be by vomiting, fasting or taking laxatives (drugs that make you poo more) or diuretics (drugs that make you pee more). Excessive exercise can also be a form of purging. Exercise can of course be good, but doing too much exercise can cause harm to your body.

You may feel that parts of your life are out of control and that purging gives you a sense of control. But bulimia can seriously damage your body, so it's important to get help and find other ways of coping.

Bulimia is a serious condition, but there's support available to you to help you get through it.

Some people might struggle with bingeing, but without the desire to purge. This might be diagnosed as binge-eating disorder (BED). You can find out more about binge-eating disorder on our eating problems page.

The symptoms of bulimia

You may experience short- and long-term effects on your body, as well as emotional and behavioural, and physical symptoms.

Just because you experience one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean what you’re experiencing is definitely bulimia. It’s important to talk to your GP to get a full diagnosis.

Close up of a boy sitting in a park. His expression seems worried as if deep in thought.
  • thinking obsessively about food, exercise or your weight
  • binge-eating
  • exercising too much
  • isolating yourself
  • feeling helpless and out of control
  • poor sleep
  • low mood or mood swings
  • losing interest in things and people
  • organising your life around eating and purging behaviour

A boy wearing glasses and a black hoodie stands in a park looking worried. He is rubbing the back of his neck with one hand.
  • sore throat
  • dehydration
  • bad teeth (from vomiting)
  • heart problems
  • muscle spasms
  • swollen glands
  • regular changes in weight
  • bloating
  • change in periods
  • constipation
  • feeling weak and tired
  • stomach cramps

These symptoms could also be a sign of other eating problems or disorders, such as anorexia nervosa. If you are struggling with any of these symptoms, it’s important that you speak to your GP. They can help you get the support you need.

How to speak to your GP

Getting help and support for bulimia

Take the first step by talking to someone you like and trust, like a family member, friend, teacher or counsellor. You may be able to access support through your school, college or university counselling service.

You should also see your GP. Although not all GPs will have expertise on the subject, they can still point you in the right direction for support. They may offer to refer you to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), a community eating disorder service, a psychiatrist or another expert who can help you.

In England, young people under the age of 18 can refer themselves to community eating disorder services, although some services have suspended self-referral due to high demand. You can find your nearest eating disorder support service via the NHS website.

Bulimia can happen to anyone regardless of gender, race or age, and it is never your fault. If you think you might be struggling with bulimia, it's really important to get help quickly because it can cause long-term damage to your body.

Illustration by Lou Brown. Yellow text in the centre of two hands holding hearts reads, 'you will get through this.'

Artwork by Lou Brown @Goodstrangevibes - yellow text sits in the centre of two hands holding hearts. The text reads, 'you will get through this.'

The first, and probably most important thing, is to tell someone you trust that you are struggling. Don’t go through this alone. I know it’s hard, but trust me - it is worth it.
Emily, 23
Remember that it’s not your fault. Binge-eating disorder is a real, serious issue. You are not weak, you are not incapable of control, you are just a normal person who is suffering from a mental illness, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.
Hollie, 18

Treating bulimia

A young person looks away while she stands between two other young people.

What treatment you receive may depend on how severe your condition is.

Your treatment may involve one-to-one talking therapy or family therapy to help tackle the thoughts and feelings that you’re experiencing with your illness. You may also work with a dietitian (someone who helps with your food and nutrition) to help you gradually return to healthy eating habits.

You'll be supported to learn about what your body needs and encouraged to find healthier ways of coping with your feelings.

Counselling and therapy

Kingfisher online support group

  • Sharing your experiences with others can help you to feel less alone, find support and get better.

    Kingfisher groups are a welcoming online space for anyone suffering with bulimia, or anyone who believes they may have bulimia. The sessions are run and moderated by Beat staff, and offer a confidential and safe space to share your experiences with other people in similar situations.

    They run every Wednesday from 6:45pm-7:45pm and you can attend as often or as little as you like.

You may also be offered medication to help with other problems you are experiencing, such as low mood or anxiety. You can find out more about taking medication for your mental health on our medications page.

Don’t give up if it’s a slow journey. Improving your mental and physical health is never an immediate thing. There will be times where you slip back into your old habits and it feels like you’re taking two steps back, but don’t ever give up because you can do it.
Hollie, 18

Supporting a friend or loved one with bulimia

Two young people sitting on a bench in a park, one has their arm around the other.

If your friend or family member is struggling with bulimia, it’s important to encourage them to seek professional help as soon as possible. But know that just being there for them can also play a crucial role in helping them to get better. This could be anything from lending a listening ear, to helping them stick to a routine, or simply reassuring them that things will get better.

Take a look at some of our tips for supporting your loved one below.

  • Acknowledge that this is distressing for them and let them know that they are not to blame.

  • Let them tell you how they are feeling and what they are thinking, instead of making assumptions.

  • Avoid conversations around weight, exercise, food, body shape and diets.

  • Model a balanced relationship with food and exercise.

  • Reassure them that recovery is possible.

  • Ask them what you can do to help. This could include putting boundaries around mealtimes or providing a space to talk about how they are feeling.

  • Try to think whether there’s anything you are doing that is supporting the bulimia, even if you don’t mean to. This could include things like cleaning up sick or cooking different meals for them. You might be doing this to help your loved one avoid distress, but it might also enable the behaviour to continue. It can feel really difficult to stop doing things like this, but it’s important to try to set boundaries.

Remember your friend does not need you to fully understand their situation, they just need you to support them and be there for them.
Beth, 15
Two young people lean against a bus stop. The person on the left is laughing and wears a black coat while looking at the other young person. The person on the right wears a dark blue jacket and is looking at the person on the left. They're side on to the camera.

Remember to look after yourself too

It can be difficult to know how to support a friend or family member with bulimia, and seeing someone close to you suffer can have an impact on your own mental health too. Taking care of them can be physically and emotionally exhausting, so it’s especially important to also look after yourself during this time. Beat’s support for carers offers more information and advice on how you can manage your own wellbeing while supporting someone you love.

Get help now

Where to get help

If you're struggling with your eating, or finding it difficult to cope, you are not alone. Here are some services that can support you. 

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