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The difference between anorexia, bulimia and binge eating

Eating disorders are very common and should be no source of shame. Here we outline the most common types of eating disorder, going through the symptoms and treatment options available

Eating problems include any difficult relationship with food. Anyone can experience problems with food, regardless of their age, gender, weight or background.

Food and appetite are a major part of everyone’s day-to-day life, and it’s normal to experience a lack of appetite, cravings or the desire to eat healthier from time to time.

Eating problems begin to form when someone’s relationship with food takes over their life. Eating issues can lead to depression, anxiety, exhaustion, shame and fear.

Those with an eating problem might find that they can’t focus at work or school and that eating food or controlling food has become the most important thing in their life.

They might also struggle to be spontaneous, avoid socialising or going on dates in restaurants.

Types of eating disorder



Doctors will often use medical examinations to diagnose eating disorders
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Eating disorders are a medical diagnosis based on eating patterns and medical tests.

Eating problems are defined as a difficult relationship with food, and don’t always develop into eating disorders.

The mental health charity mind, has plenty of information on eating disorders.

What is bulimia?

If you get a bulimia diagnosis (sometimes known as bulimia nervosa), you may experience a cycle of what’s called bingeing and purging.

  • Bingeing – This is when someone eats large amounts of food in one go. Some people turn to bingeing when they are facing a difficult time in life, or are experiencing tough emotions.
  • Purging – Purging is the act of getting rid of food once its been eaten. This often happens after bingeing when the sufferer feels guilt or shame over what they’ve eaten.

If you suffer from bulimia you may feel:

  • shame or guilt
  • that you are fat
  • hatred towards your body
  • lonely and fearful of being found out
  • low mood
  • stuck in a cycle feeling out of control



Some people turn to food in order to manage negative feelings
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If you experience bulimia you might:

  • go through daily binge and purge cycles
  • binge on foods that you consider unhealthy
  • starve yourself between binges
  • eat in secret
  • get rid of food using laxatives or by making yourself sick
  • crave only certain types of food

What is Anorexia?

If you’ve been given an anorexia diagnosis this means that you’re not eating enough food, meaning you’re not receiving sufficient nutrition.

Some people wrongly believe that anorexia is all about staying slim and looking thin – but it’s far more complex than that.

At its core, anorexia is caused by feelings of low self-esteem, negative self image and distressing emotions.



Weight management can be a big preoccupation for those with anorexia
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If you have anorexia you might feel:

  • an obsession with food
  • like it’s an achievement to deny yourself food and exercise
  • like you need to be perfect or are never enough
  • a need for control
  • that you are hiding secrets from friends and family
  • that you are fat
  • that losing weight is never enough
  • depressed or suicidal





If you suffer from anorexia you might:

  • reduce your food intake or stop eating entirely
  • hide food or throw it away
  • count calories
  • cook meals for others without eating the food yourself
  • use drugs to reduce your appetite
  • exercise a lot
  • create rules around eating – for instance having ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods
  • eat at structured times throughout the day

What are binge eating disorders?



Those with eating disorders may avoid family meals
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If you have a binge eating disorder you might struggle to stop eating – this is sometimes called ‘compulsive eating’.

You might rely on food to manage difficult emotions.





If you have a binge eating disorder you may feel:

  • out of control
  • ashamed of how much you eat
  • lonely
  • very low, even worthless
  • unhappy about your body
  • stressed and anxious.





If you have a binge eating disorder you might:

  • eat large amounts all at once
  • eat without really thinking about it, especially when doing other things
  • often eat unhealthy food
  • eat for comfort when you feel down
  • eat until you feel sick
  • hide how much you are eating
  • find dieting hard

Eating disorder treatment

It can be daunting to talk to your GP about an eating problem, but they should be able to refer you to a specialist service which should be really helpful for your recovery.



Many people make a full recovery from eating disorders
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In some cases, you could be offered help through online self-help courses. This will usually be offered to you if you have a bulimia or binge eating diagnosis.

Like many other mental health problems, you might be offered talking therapy, CBT or family therapy.

There are no medications for eating disorders specifically, but you might be offered prescription drugs for underlying health conditions like depression.





You might be referred to a clinic or hospital if you are very underweight or unwell and you could be forced to go to hospital under the Mental Health Act.

Before being sectioned, you will be assessed by health professionals.

There are plenty of useful resources available and trained professionals waiting, all willing to offer advice and guidance. Visit mind’s useful contacts for more information.


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