This article will provide an in-depth understanding of anorexia vs bulimia, highlighting their key differences and similarities to enhance awareness and inform those affected by or interested in these eating disorders.
Eating Disorders are a category of mental health disorders characterized by persistent disturbances relating to eating and eating behavior. These disturbances result in altered consumption of food or absorption of food in such a way that it interferes with psychosocial function and physical health.
The two most common include anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. This article will explore the differences and similarities between anorexia and bulimia.
Key differences between anorexia and bulimia
The biggest difference between bulimia and anorexia is the eating behavior. With anorexia, people avoid eating or limit how much they intake. With bulimia, people overindulge and then make themselves sick so that they do not absorb the food consumed.
Physical health consequences
As a result of the eating behaviors, there is a difference between anorexia and bulimia in terms of health consequences. People with anorexia restrict their energy intake so that they have significantly low body weight, which is less than what they need.
There are significant health consequences to bulimia, particularly those who regularly vomit or use things like ipecac to induce vomiting. Laxatives and diuretics can harm the body, and regular vomiting can cause damage to the throat, the mouth, and the teeth because of the stomach acids that are continually regurgitated. The constant binge eating and purging can mean an individual suffers from low weight or their weight significantly fluctuates, which can cause damage to several other parts of their body.
Anorexia brings with it an intense fear of becoming fat or gaining weight, and that fear causes persistent behaviors that prevent any type of weight gain. Sometimes people with anorexia recognize that they are thin, but they are specific parts of their body that they still think are too fat, like their butt, their abs, or their thighs. They might frequently and obsessively measure their body, evaluate their weight, or use a mirror to check for any potential fat gain.
Anorexia causes significant disturbances in the way the body is shaped or how much someone weighs because they have an inaccurate view of themselves and consistently think of themselves as fatter than they are, which leads them to restrict their calories and constantly struggle with dangerously low weight.
The combination of overeating and immediate vomiting can cause significant weight fluctuations, especially if an individual doesn’t purge immediately following consumption but instead does things like exercise excessively to try and compensate for how much was consumed.
Secretiveness and eating patterns
Anorexia can have one of two eating patterns.
- The first is restrictive. This is when an individual is secretive about their behavior, and they don’t eat as much as they should, going through excessive fasting, dieting, or exercise in order to purge themselves.
- The second is binging or purging, where an individual might restrict their caloric intake but still misuse things like enemas, diuretics, or laxatives or even self-induced vomiting each time they eat.
Bulimia is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating where an individual within a 2-hour period will eat significantly larger amounts of food than normal people would under similar circumstances, and they have a lack of control, which means they can’t stop eating or control how much they eat. Immediately after binge eating, that same individual will use inappropriate measures to prevent weight gain, like immediately inducing vomiting, misusing laxatives or medications, fasting, or exercising excessively to compensate.
Similarities between these two disorders:
Rooted in psychological issues
The decision to semi-starve one’s self or to purge oneself is rooted in psychological issues. Seriously, underweight individuals with anorexia usually struggle with depressive signs and symptoms. It’s also common to see someone with anorexia also struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Individuals who struggle with bulimia are usually very ashamed of their eating problems, so they engage in secretive behavior to try and hide those problems. Binge eating is done in secrecy and continues until an individual is uncomfortable or even in pain. This can trigger significant interpersonal stressors like negative feelings about body shape or food, boredom, and even dietary restraint. For some, bulimia is inappropriately used to prevent weight gain because of things like negative self-evaluation, OCD, or depression and anxiety symptoms.
Focus on body image and weight
With both conditions, there is a focus on body weight and image. Someone who is a fit, lean bodybuilder struggling with psychological issues around their body image might look in a mirror and see themselves completely differently than how they actually look.
This can bring about feelings of shame or discomfort and result in changes to eating habits that are harmful.
Risky health consequences
With bulimia vs anorexia, while the health consequences might be different, they both bring about a serious risk of potential harm to the body and, subsequently, to the mind.
When comparing anorexia vs. bulimia, a significant similarity is that both engage in secretive behaviors. Someone who struggles with bulimia might secretly binge by waiting until they get home to eat as much as they can and then secretly throwing up or overeating in public and excusing themselves to secretly throw up in a restaurant bathroom.
With anorexia, people might pretend they are full or that they have already eaten, but secretly, they are restricting themselves calorically to an unhealthy extent.
Impact on social and personal life
Another similarity is the impact both conditions have on social and personal lives. Someone who is struggling with anorexia vs. bulimia runs the risk of isolating themselves socially because of these eating habits, given that the majority of social engagements revolve around food.
This isolation can also impact relationships because of things like secretive behavior and the psychological issues in which both conditions are rooted.
Chronic nature and risk of relapse
With all manner of eating disorders, including bulimia and anorexia, the conditions are considered chronic, which means they don’t just affect an individual once or twice but rather, habitually. Without proper treatment, these conditions can affect someone in the long term. Moreover, even someone who might have progressed or improved in terms of the psychological issues behind their disorder can still relapse with all of the symptoms and their subsequent harm coming back in the future.
Recovery and treatment approaches: bulimia vs. anorexia
Awareness and education in schools and communities are essential because both conditions and similar eating disorders are likely to start in adolescence. Treatment and recovery approaches for anorexia vs. bulimia look very similar, involving things like:
- Nutritional rehabilitation
- Family therapy
- Medications like antidepressants for co-occurring mental health disorders
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Interpersonal psychotherapy
The primary goal of any treatment is to help an individual reach a healthy weight. Depending on their condition, this could mean hospitalization or inpatient treatment. Those who struggle with anorexia are more likely to need hospitalization than those who struggle with bulimia. This type of nutritional rehabilitation is the most important step.
However, individuals are more likely to get the help they need if they have family integration, and that is why it’s important to increase awareness and education in schools and communities to give families and community members the resources they need to support healthy eating habits in their children and to learn how to address distorted perceptions of body weight and shape.
With family therapy, individuals are more likely to enjoy successful treatment for anorexia or bulimia because of the support they get. Cognitive behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy can help reduce the risk of relapse after things like nutritional rehabilitation and family therapy have been used to target any underlying health conditions and set out to rebuild healthy eating habits.
You will find more than one difference between bulimia and anorexia, but no matter which eating disorder you or someone close to you has, there are similarities in terms of the secret of behavior, impact on personal life, risk of relapse, health consequences, and mental health distress.
As a result, it’s imperative to find the right kind of help. Raising awareness about these conditions can help reduce the stigma around eating disorders and encourage people to seek professional support when necessary.