How is bulimia diagnosed?

Diagnosing bulimia nervosa typically involves a comprehensive assessment by a healthcare professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. The diagnosis is based on criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). To be diagnosed, a person must exhibit recurrent episodes of binge eating and engage in compensatory behaviors, like purging or excessive exercise, at least once a week for three months. If the behavior occurs less frequently, the person may experience a low-frequency version of bulimia, which falls under the “Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder” category. A thorough evaluation of the individual's eating patterns, physical health, and psychological state is essential for an accurate diagnosis.

It can often be difficult to identify those with bulimia, and it is not unusual for people with bulimia to be misdiagnosed with another disorder. Several factors contribute to this issue, including:

  1. Secrecy and shame: Individuals with bulimia often engage in secretive behaviors and may feel ashamed about their binge-eating and purging, making it difficult for them to disclose their struggles to healthcare providers. The secret behavior also makes it difficult for peers and loved ones to notice their unhealthy binge/purging behavior.
  2. Normal weight: Unlike anorexia, individuals with bulimia may maintain a normal or near-normal body weight, which can lead to healthcare professionals not recognizing the disorder based on physical appearance.
  3. Lack of awareness: Some healthcare providers may not have sufficient training or awareness about eating disorders, leading to misdiagnosis or overlooking the symptoms.
  4. Co-occurring conditions: Bulimia frequently co-occurs with other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, which can complicate the diagnostic process.
  5. Variability in symptoms: Bulimia presents with a range of symptoms and behaviors, and not all individuals exhibit the same patterns, further complicating diagnosis.

It is essential for healthcare professionals to be vigilant, ask appropriate questions, and conduct thorough assessments to correctly diagnose and provide timely treatment for individuals with bulimia nervosa. Increased awareness and education about eating disorders can help reduce misdiagnosis rates and ensure those in need receive appropriate care.

Who is affected by bulimia?

Bulimia, like all eating disorders, does not discriminate. It impacts individuals of all body sizes, both sexes, gender identities, ages, demographics, and socioeconomic statuses. Based on research estimates, the prevalence of bulimia is highest among adolescents and young adult females (Van Eeden et al., 2021). It is important to note that, while less typical, it is not uncommon for bulimia to develop in older adults.

The prevalence rate of bulimia varies across studies, but generally, the prevalence ranges from 0.3 to 4.6% in females and 0.1 to 1.3% in males (Van Eeden et al., 2021). The rates are higher in minority groups such as transgender women and men (Nagata et al., 2020). Studies find that an increasing number of people experience bulimia  (Van Eeden et al., 2021).

Several factors increase the risk of developing bulimia:

  • Dieting and weight concerns: Engaging in restrictive diets and having concerns about weight, body shape, or appearance can increase the risk of bulimia. Dieting can lead to feelings of deprivation, which may trigger binge eating episodes.
  • Low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction: Individuals with low self-esteem, poor body image, or a preoccupation with perceived flaws in their appearance are at greater risk of developing bulimia. The desire for an idealized body shape can drive disordered eating behaviors.
  • Psychological factors: Psychological factors such as depression, anxiety, impulsivity, and a tendency toward perfectionism are associated with a higher risk of bulimia. Binge eating and purging behaviors can serve as maladaptive coping mechanisms for emotional distress.
  • Genetics: Having a family history of eating disorders, including bulimia or anorexia nervosa, can increase the likelihood of developing bulimia. Genetics may play a role in predisposing individuals to eating disorders.
  • Trauma and Stress: Traumatic life events, such as physical or sexual abuse, emotional trauma, or significant life changes, can contribute to the development of bulimia. Stressful situations may lead individuals to use binge eating and purging as a way to cope.

It is important to emphasize that these risk factors often interact and can vary among individuals. Not everyone with these risk factors will develop bulimia, and some individuals may develop the disorder without obvious risk factors. Bulimia is a complex condition, and its development typically involves the interplay of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

No matter who you are, the sooner you get help for bulimia, the better.

Bulimia health risks.

Bulimia poses numerous serious health risks due to the cycle of binge eating and purging, as well as the associated behaviors and consequences:

  • Electrolyte imbalances: Frequent vomiting, laxative use, and diuretic abuse can disrupt electrolyte levels in the body, leading to potentially life-threatening conditions like cardiac arrhythmias.
  • Gastrointestinal problems: Repeated vomiting can damage the esophagus, inflame the throat, and cause gastric issues such as ulcers and acid reflux.
  • Dental issues: Exposure to stomach acid during vomiting can erode tooth enamel, leading to dental decay and gum problems.
  • Dehydration: Excessive purging can result in severe dehydration, which can lead to kidney problems and other complications.
  • Nutritional deficiencies: Consistent binge-purge cycles can result in inadequate nutrition, leading to deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals.
  • Heart problems: Electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, and nutrient deficiencies can collectively affect heart health, potentially leading to heart failure.
  • Mental health consequences: Bulimia is often associated with depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders, compounding the overall health risks.

Early intervention and professional treatment are crucial to address these health risks and help individuals recover from bulimia.

Bulimia treatment prognostics.

It is important to be aware that recovering from bulimia is a unique journey for everyone.

  • 45% of people with bulimia recover after treatment, and the highest recovery rate happens between 4 and 9 years after treatment has started (Steinhausen et al., 2009).
  • Around 22.5% of people with bulimia develop another eating disorder during their recovery (Steinhausen et al., 2009). This means that while a person recovers from bulimia they may develop another eating disorder.
  • 23% of people struggle with bulimia chronically, requiring long-term treatment interventions (Steinhausen et al., 2009).

At Monte Nido & Affiliates, our clients with bulimia experience over

  • 75% improvement on all of our measurements after 6 months of treatment.
  • 92% of clients reported reduced eating disorder symptoms on the Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire
  • 84% of clients reported reduced eating disorder symptoms on the Eating Disorder Inventory self-report
  • 83% of clients reported improvement in their quality of life
  • 88% of clients reported improvements in depression
  • Over 75% of clients reported reduced anxiety
  • 81% of bulimia clients with PTSD at time of admission reported improvement in their trauma symptoms.

You are not alone. We’re here to help.

One of the best ways to improve treatment outcomes is to start treatment early. If you are concerned that you, or a loved one, may have an eating disorder, we are here to help. 

Please reach out or email to connect with a member of our Admissions Team. Begin your journey to recovery today.


Nagata JM, Ganson KT, Austin SB. Emerging trends in eating disorders among sexual and gender minorities. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2020 Nov;33(6):562-567. doi: 10.1097/YCO.0000000000000645. PMID: 32858597; PMCID: PMC8060208.

Steinhausen HC, Weber S. The outcome of bulimia nervosa: findings from one-quarter century of research. Am J Psychiatry. 2009 Dec;166(12):1331-41. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09040582. Epub 2009 Nov 2. PMID: 19884225.

van Eeden AE, van Hoeken D, Hoek HW. Incidence, prevalence and mortality of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2021 Nov 1;34(6):515-524. doi: 10.1097/YCO.0000000000000739. PMID: 34419970; PMCID: PMC8500372.

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