Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa – A Few Simple Ways to Tell the Difference

Updated on April 13, 2020

A friend or loved one developing an eating disorder is never an easy situation.  Well-known eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa cause anxiety and even fear in their families and friends.  While most people have heard of these disorders, there is still a general lack of information surrounding them – and we tend to fear what we don’t understand. Positively, these fears can be allayed by the comprehensive care available at anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa treatment centers.  

When you’re considering an intervention or even a simple, discreet discussion with your loved one about the possibility of an eating disorder, it’s important to be armed with knowledge.  For people who aren’t sure whether their loved one has an eating disorder, here’s a handy guide to the respective symptoms of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

A pattern of disordered eating behaviors causes by a variety of social, genetic, and psychological factors, anorexia nervosa is considered to be the most dangerous of all mental health disorders.The rate of both suicide and death by malnutrition in people diagnosed with anorexia nervosais almost 12 times the rate of the general population.  Experts in behavioral health estimate that without anorexia nervosa treatment, 20 percent of people with the disorder will die prematurely.The most important factor in avoiding this fate is early diagnosis and intervention.

So, what are the symptoms of anorexia nervosa? The classic defining symptom is a food restriction, that is, eating only tiny amounts of food or skipping meals altogether, even to the point of becoming emaciated or malnourished.  This is a result of the perception that the individual is overweight or fat, even when they are dangerously underweight.

Anorexia nervosa has several other physical complications related to lack of caloric and nutrient intake as well as the psychological factors that contribute to it.  Some of the observable physical symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Thinning hair or brittle hair
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dried-out or yellowing skin
  • A fine downy hair growth on the body
  • Intolerance to cold

Some symptoms that require a doctor’s diagnosis include:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Anemia
  • Lack of menstruation
  • Malnutrition

As a loved one of the individual in question, you might notice some of these behavioral symptoms:

  • Preoccupation with weight and body size
  • Distorted perception of one’s weight
  • Avoiding eating in public
  • Wearing clothes that hide the body’s shape
  • Being suddenly socially withdrawn

What Is Bulimia Nervosa?

Bulimia nervosa, which is also well-known but often misunderstood,is also associated with a higher incidence of mortality than other mental health disorders, but its symptoms differ considerably from anorexia nervosa.  The similarities are there; bulimia nervosa usually is associated with body dysmorphia (a distorted sense of one’s weight or attractiveness), just like anorexia nervosa. 

In contrast to an anorexia nervosa diagnosis, people with bulimia nervosa are not normally underweight or emaciated.  In fact, they may be overweight in some cases. This is because people with bulimia nervosa typically don’t restrict food intake, but instead engage in a binge/purge cycle.

People with the disorder will eat large amounts of food, which are often fatty or sugary “junk foods,” in a short period of time.  This is normally done in secret, and late at night or otherwise not at regular mealtimes. These binge eating episodes are followed by purging behaviors that remove the caloric intake of the binge episode.  Most commonly this manifests as self-induced vomiting, but other methods may include abusing laxatives or diuretics, administering enemas, or obsessively exercising. Some other frequent indications of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Preoccupation with body size 
  • Cycling through extreme diet phases
  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain
  • Hoarded food, usually hidden away
  • Lots of discarded food wrappers or laxative containers
  • Signs and smells of vomiting
  • Excusing themselves following meals
  • Discomfort around mealtimes or eating in public
  • Discolored teeth and fingers

How to Secure Help for a Loved One Who May Have Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa

People that are concerned that a loved one is showing signs of an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa can’t make the call themselves – only medical and psychiatric professionals can make a true diagnosis.  But If you see the signs and symptoms listed above, it’s worthwhile to contact a professional anorexia nervosa treatment center sooner rather than later. 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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