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Bulimia and Your Teenager

By: Catherine Gough - Updated: 18 Nov 2012 | comments*Discuss
Eating Problems Eating Disorder Weight

Bulimia is an eating disorder characterised by cycles of binge eating followed by excessive dieting, vomiting and/or use of laxatives. It particularly affects younger women and teenagers although it can also affect young men.

Bulimia is a serious mental illness and needs expert professional help.

Why Does Bulimia Happen?

Bulimia often affects high achieving, perfectionist young people. Typically, they have low self-esteem, poor body image and may have suffered trauma or abuse in their past. Some may feel under pressure from images in the media or from family and peers who are constantly dieting or worrying about their body size. However, it’s important to note that bulimia can happen to people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences and that it’s not a question of blame or fault.

The Link with Dieting

Bulimia often begins after someone has been dieting, particularly if that diet was extreme or involved techniques like diet pills or liquid meals (rather than sensible weight regulation based on healthy eating). Such diets can alter a person’s metabolic rate and their relationship with food, so that they develop a strong preference for foods high in fats and sugars, begin to see eating as a crime to feel guilty about and find it difficult to regulate their intake through a normal balanced diet.

Bulimia and Anorexia

People with Anorexia often go through episodes of bulimia too, swinging between over-eating and starving themselves.

Symptoms of Bulimia

Bulimia can be difficult to spot, because sufferers tend to look normal on the outside and may eat normally at mealtimes – although some will make excuses not to join in family meals. However, there are signs that parents can look out for:
  • Staying up after everyone else has gone to bed and being anxious to get rid of everyone (they want to be alone to binge or purge)
  • Large quantities of food disappearing – like whole packs of biscuits, tubs of ice-cream or jars of peanut butter. Attempts to hide empty food wrappers and packets.
  • Overeating but not putting on weight
  • Dry skin and puffy face
  • Spending longer than usual in the bathroom, with the radio on or water running (to disguise sounds). Evidence of vomiting.
  • Unexplained exhaustion and mood swings (bulimics often swing between depression and self-hatred before a binge, to temporary elation when they have purged themselves)

Effects of Bulimia

The cycle of bingeing and vomiting will begin to take its toll on the body. For example, tooth erosion is common, as are sore throats and stomach pain. More serious physical effects include heart and kidney problems and damage to the lining of the bowel. Exhaustion, depression, aching muscles, giddiness, feeling cold and a tendency to gain weight easily can all be caused by dramatic fluctuations in glucose levels.

Getting Help

It’s essential to get help for teenagers with Bulimia. The GP is the best place to start. They may be referred on to counselling or a specialist clinic. Try to make sure that they see professionals with specific expertise in Bulimia. There are also self-help groups young people can join – again, these need to be carefully assessed – and other kinds of support and information for the rest of the family.

Treatment will usually focus on restoring a normal relationship with food and eating, exploring the underlying psychological problems that have contributed to the Bulimia and helping to build the young person’s self-confidence. With such a multi-faceted approach, most young people have a very good outlook for the future, particularly if they are motivated themselves.

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