No one wants to consider the possibility of a loved one developing an eating disorder. The two most well-known restrictive eating disorders are bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, and they can each have deleterious effects on a person’s health – in some cases causing premature death.

While there are countless options for eating disorder treatment, a diagnosis must still be made before getting started on them. Most people don’t have the medical and psychological background to accurately make a diagnosis themselves, and that can lead to ignoring the problem or making a rash decision to have an intervention.

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For people who aren’t sure whether their loved one has an eating disorder, here’s a quick roadmap for the prevalent symptoms of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa that can help you spotlight the difference.

What Is Bulimia Nervosa?

One of the most common types of eating disorders, bulimia nervosa has a higher incidence of mortality than most other forms of mental illness. Bulimia nervosa normally counts as its root cause a skewed deal of the person’s body and weight and a low self-image, which compels them to engage in certain behaviors to reduce caloric intake.

Despite public ideas about eating disorders, people with bulimia nervosa are not always underweight or emaciated.  In fact, they may be overweight in some cases.  This is because of the first part of bulimia nervosa’s defining actions – binge eating episodes.

Individuals with BN will regularly take part in binge eating episodes, in which they will eat large amounts of food, which is often junk food or empty calories, very quickly and often in secret. These binge eating episodes are followed by attempts to rid the body of those calories, known as purging.  Most commonly this means self-induced vomiting, but they may exercise obsessively, use laxatives diuretics, or enemas to achieve the purge.  Some common signs of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Obsession with body size
  • Engaging in fad diet phases
  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain
  • Hidden or hoarded food for binging episodes
  • Lots of discarded food wrappers or laxative containers
  • Signs and smells of vomiting
  • Visiting the bathroom directly after a meal
  • Uneasiness when eating with other people
  • Discolored teeth and fingers

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

Perhaps the most well-known kind of eating disorder, anorexia nervosa takes several forms and a full diagnosis will require physical and psychological tests performed by a team of professionals.  Anorexia nervosa is the most fatal kind of mental health disease if left untreated, raising the rate of suicide and deaths by starvation to almost 12 times the rate of the general population.  It’s estimated that without anorexia nervosa treatment, 20 percent of people with the disorder will die.

So, it is important to identify symptoms of anorexia nervosa early on. The classic characterizing symptom is food restriction and extremely low caloric intake, which can lead to extreme weight loss, malnutrition, and starvation.  The flawed sense of one’s body weight found in bulimia nervosa is almost always present.

Beyond emaciation, anorexia nervosa can present various other medical and psychiatric complications.  Loved ones of a person who may have AN should look out for:

  • Thinning hair that’s become brittle
  • Fine hairs growing on the body (AKA lanugo)
  • Always feeling cold
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dry, cracking skin

People with anorexia nervosa will often show the following medical symptoms:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Anemia
  • Lack of menstruation
  • Osteoporosis (premature)

Aside from the medical complications, there are several psychological and behavioral symptoms:

  • Preoccupation with weight and body size
  • Distorted thoughts about body size and weight
  • Avoiding eating in public
  • Sleeplessness
  • Shifts in personality

Diagnosing Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa

If you’re worried that a loved one is showing signs of an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, don’t make the call yourself – only medical and psychiatric professionals can make a true diagnosis.  On the other hand, because of the potential complications of either, it’s worthwhile to contact a professional treatment professional.  If it’s not one of the disorders, you can take a breath of relief.  If it is, it can make the difference in saving your loved one’s life.


With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment  – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.

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