Anorexia & Bulimia - What are the Differences?

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Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that affect millions of people worldwide. Research indicates that the lifetime risk for women developing anorexia nervosa ranges from 0.3% to 1%, while the prevalence of bulimia nervosa is higher. Among the various types of eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are some of the most commonly known. 

Although they share certain similarities, these disorders are distinctly different in their symptoms, behaviors, and health consequences. It is vital for healthcare professionals to address both disorders, but understanding the differences between them is equally essential in order to provide appropriate support and guidance to a loved one or oneself.

If you are concerned that you or a loved one could have anorexia nervosa, take our anorexia test to assess whether your symptoms align with those of this eating disorder.

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a severe eating disorder characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight, leading to self-starvation, excessive weight loss, and a distorted body image. Individuals with anorexia often have a preoccupation with their weight and body shape, and they may engage in extreme calorie restriction and excessive exercise to maintain significantly low body weight. Learn more about the warning signs of anorexia here.

What is Bulimia Nervosa?

Bulimia nervosa is another eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating, followed by compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain. These behaviors may include self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse. Individuals with bulimia often feel out of control during binge episodes and may experience frequent weight fluctuations due to the binge-purge cycle. Research indicates that bulimia is much more common in females than males, with females being five times more likely to experience this condition.

Anorexia Symptoms

  • Extreme calorie restriction
  • Obsession with weight and body shape
  • Excessive exercise
  • Severe weight loss
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Bulimia Symptoms

The long-term effects of anorexia, including hair loss, fertility issues, and the potential development of obsessive-compulsive disorder, underscore the critical importance of early intervention and treatment. This urgency is equally vital for those affected by atypical anorexia, a condition that challenges traditional perceptions of eating disorders but can lead to similar detrimental effects on an individual's well-being. Recognizing the warning signs of anorexia early can pave the way for timely and effective treatment, mitigating these long-term consequences.

Bulimia Symptoms

  • Eating large amounts of food in a short period
  • Feeling out of control during binge episodes
  • Purging behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse
  • Frequent weight fluctuations
  • Gastrointestinal problems

Key Differences Between Anorexia & Bulimia

While both anorexia and bulimia involve a preoccupation with weight and body image, they have distinct symptoms and behaviors:

  • Anorexia is characterized by severe calorie restriction, whereas bulimia involves cycles of binge eating and purging behaviors.
  • Anorexia can lead to severe malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, and organ damage as a result of extreme weight loss. On the other hand, bulimia can cause electrolyte imbalances, as well as gastrointestinal issues, and dental problems due to frequent vomiting.
  • Anorexia is often associated with perfectionism, rigidity, and high levels of anxiety, whereas bulimia tends to be linked with impulsivity, mood swings, and a higher prevalence of co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

Treatment Options for Eating Disorders

Treatment for anorexia and bulimia typically involves a multidisciplinary approach, including medical care, nutritional counseling, and psychotherapy. A study by the National Institute of Mental Health revealed that about 33.8% of participants with anorexia nervosa and 43.2% with bulimia nervosa sought professional help for their eating disorders.

Some of the most effective treatments for these disorders include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Medication management may also be necessary to address co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.

Eating Disorder Treatment at the Kahm Center

The Kahm Center is a specialized facility that offers comprehensive, evidence-based treatment for individuals struggling with eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Our experienced team of professionals is dedicated to creating a supportive and nurturing environment for individuals on their recovery journey. Our levels of care, PHP and IOP, address the unique needs of each patient.

We utilize special techniques, such as metabolic testing and body composition analysis, to ensure our patients are getting the treatment they need while also making positive progress. By focusing on the whole person and addressing the underlying factors that contribute to eating disorders, the Kahm Center aims to empower individuals to develop a healthy relationship with food, their bodies, and themselves.

Clinically Reviewed By

nick kahm reviewer

Nick Kahm, PhD


Nick Kahm, a former philosophy faculty member at St. Michael's College in Colchester, VT, transitioned from academia to running the Kahm Clinic with his mother. He started the clinic to train dietitians in using Metabolic Testing and Body Composition Analysis for helping people with eating disorders. Now, he is enthusiastic about expanding eating disorder treatment through the Kahm Center for Eating Disorders in Vermont.

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