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What is the Difference Between Anorexia and Bulimia?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 17, 2024
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Anorexia and bulimia are both eating disorders that are believed to have a psychological component as well as a physical manifestation. Though they may be caused by related factors, symptoms, treatment, and health effects mark a clear difference between anorexia and bulimia. Understanding the difference between anorexia and bulimia can help improve awareness about both conditions, and put concerned parents and friends on the lookout for signs of a developing eating disorder in a loved one.

Probably the simplest difference between anorexia and bulimia is in the method used to express the disorder. Anorexics try to avoid food, essentially pushing themselves into starvation through refusing to eat, or eating only rarely. Bulimics, by contrast, may try to avoid food but frequently fall into a cycle of binge eating followed by purging through use of laxatives or induced vomiting. Both conditions are extremely damaging to the body and can result in lifelong health consequences, or even eventual death.

People in the advanced stages of anorexia are generally noticeably underweight, despite constant insistence that they are fat or weigh too much. Since bulimics generally intake more calories on a regular basis, they may appear to be at a healthy weight even while struggling with a severe eating disorder. The most obvious physical signs of bulimia include halitosis consistent with regular vomiting, stained teeth, and a puffy appearance to the face.

Another major difference between anorexia and bulimia is the manner in which each disorder harms the body. The lack of consistent nutrition anorexics experience leads to a suppressed immune system, bone density loss, chronic fatigue and weakness, low blood pressure, and the potential for organ failure. Bulimics tend to do more damage to their digestive system and esophageal lining through constant purging, and may suffer from acid reflux, irregularity, severe stomach cramping, and possible tears in the esophagus.

Treatment recommendations may be another difference between anorexia and bulimia, though treatment will vary on an individual basis. Most treatment programs include both psychological care and practical measures. In addition to working on the psychological issues that may have caused an eating disorder to evolve, people with severe anorexia may have to undergo medically supervised weight gaining programs in order to return the body to a healthy weight, as well as medical treatment for any associated physical complications. Since many bulimics maintain a relatively healthy weight level, treatment is more focused on altering lifestyle habits and instilling healthy eating principles to try and reduce the perceived need for binge/purge episodes.

Though the psychological underpinnings of both anorexia and bulimia can vary considerably, many cases of anorexia are related to distorted body image problems, while bulimia is more often associated with issues of control. Both disorders are overwhelmingly linked to women, generally those in their teens or twenties. It is important to note that there is no absolute rule regarding when and in whom either disorder may manifest, and many people who develop an eating disorder in young adulthood may struggle with the problem for the rest of their lives.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseGeek. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
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Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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