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Recognizing bulimia nervosa symptoms in teenagers

Bulimia nervosa (BN) is a dangerous eating disorder that affects people of all ages, but the condition can be challenging to spot in younger people.

Learning how to identify bulimia symptoms in teenagers can be a helpful way to recognize the issue early and guide people to the appropriate treatment as soon as possible.

Last updated on 
December 26, 2023
Bulimia nervosa symptoms teenager
In this article

How common is bulimia nervosa in teenagers?

It's difficult, if not impossible, to calculate the number of people who struggle with mental disorders like bulimia nervosa. However, statistics and studies can help compile a picture of who is impacted by BN and other eating disorders.

One look at the issue estimated that around 2% of teenagers in the United States struggle with BN.1,2 These figures only accounted for people who met all the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) criteria for an official diagnosis.1

2% of teens in the U.S. struggle with bulimia nervosa.

Another examination on the subject found the average age of onset for bulimia nervosa to be 12.4 years, with a lifetime prevalence rate of 0.9%, meaning many children may develop the condition early on and continue to struggle with it into their teens.6

Yet, while it's challenging to track the number of teenage BN cases each year, it remains clear that early intervention and early treatment are crucial for recovery.

Identifying bulimia nervosa symptoms in teenagers 

The symptoms of bulimia nervosa are physical, behavioral, and emotional.

In general, younger patients present with less severe symptoms than adults, which can cause many to be initially diagnosed with 'other specified feeding or eating disorders' (OSFED) and make it more challenging to recognize bulimia nervosa in teenagers overall.4,5

Still, some studies show that as adolescents develop into adults, their bulimia nervosa symptoms tend to become more severe.6 In either case, identifying these signs earlier—and helping the person get help as soon as possible—is critical.

Physical symptoms of bulimia nervosa
Behavioral symptoms of bulimia nervosa
Emotional symptoms of bulimia nervosa

Early intervention for teens with bulimia nervosa

One of the biggest reasons it's important to understand the signs of BN in teenagers is to help them get appropriate treatment as quickly as possible. Early intervention has been tied to overall faster and more lasting recovery, so helping a teen reach out to a mental health professional can be a huge benefit.7

If you're concerned your teen or someone you know may have bulimia nervosa or another eating disorder, some tips may make it easier to talk to them about the situation.

How to talk to your teen about an eating disorder

Help educate and build awareness
Be gentle and caring
Keep a calm tone
Actively listen
Validate and restate
Leave with an action step

The benefits of early intervention and treatment for bulimia nervosa

Due to the bulimia nervosa prevalence and treatment challenges among teens, early intervention is crucial. Some additional benefits include:7

  • An improved speed of recovery: Research indicates that early identification and treatment can lead to faster recovery from bulimia.
  • Greater reduction in symptoms: Early intervention can help reduce the severity of symptoms to a greater extent than treatment initiated later in the course of the illness.
  • An increased likelihood of staying free of the illness: Initiating treatment early can improve the chances of achieving and maintaining a full recovery from bulimia nervosa.

Reduced long-term damage: Early intervention and the development of healthy eating habits can help minimize the long-term physical and psychological consequences associated with bulimia nervosa.

Bulimia nervosa in teenagers

Finding help for bulimia nervosa

At Within Health, we offer virtual eating disorder treatment and therapy for individuals struggling with bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and other eating disorders, including specialized treatment programs for teens and adolescents. Our services include:

  • Personal eating disorder treatment team: Within provides a team of professionals who will work closely with you and your teen to create a tailored treatment plan.
  • At-home treatment: The virtual nature of our services allows your teen to receive support and therapy from the comfort of their home.
  • Holistic approach: Our treatment embraces intuitive eating, body image restoration, radical self-love and acceptance, social and emotional therapy, self-esteem consolidation, trauma-informed healing, and family and group therapy.
  • Meal plans and mealtime support: The Within team provides daily meal support and nutritional check-ins so your teen can learn intuitive eating practices.
  • Alumni aftercare program: After completing treatment, our alumni program provides additional support and connection for as long as your teen needs while in recovery. 
Call our team at Within now to begin a clinically superior virtual treatment program for bulimia nervosa that works.
Get help

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Klump, K. L., Burt, S. A., McGue, M., & Iacono, W. G. (2007). Changes in genetic and environmental influences on disordered eating across adolescence: a longitudinal twin study. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(12), 1409–1415.
  2. Swanson, S. A., Crow, S. J., Le Grange, D., Swendsen, J., & Merikangas, K. R. (2011). Prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in adolescents. Results from the national comorbidity survey replication adolescent supplement. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68(7), 714–723.
  3. Hudson, J. I., Hiripi, E., Pope, H. G., Jr, & Kessler, R. C. (2007). The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological Psychiatry, 61(3), 348–358.
  4. Smink, F. R., van Hoeken, D., & Hoek, H. W. (2012). Epidemiology of eating disorders: incidence, prevalence and mortality rates. Current Psychiatry Reports, 14(4), 406–414.
  5. Le Grange, D., Swanson, S. A., Crow, S. J., & Merikangas, K. R. (2012). Eating disorder not otherwise specified presentation in the US population. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45(5), 711–718.
  6. Hail, L., & Le Grange, D. (2018). Bulimia nervosa in adolescents: prevalence and treatment challenges. Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics, 9, 11–16.
  7. Linardon, J., Brennan, L., de la Piedad Garcia, X. (2016). Rapid response to eating disorder treatment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49(10), 905-919.
  8. Bulimia nervosa. (n.d.). Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Accessed November 2023.

FAQs

What percentage of teenagers have bulimia nervosa? 

It is estimated that at least two percent of teens in the United States will be diagnosed with bulimia nervosa.1,2

Are the symptoms of bulimia different in a teenager than in an adult?

Yes. Adults have evidence of the chronic health problems seen in long-standing bulimia nervosa. Teens and adolescents tend to have less severe and less frequent symptoms.

How can you get diagnosed as having bulimia nervosa as a teenager?

If you think you may have bulimia nervosa, it’s essential to be evaluated by a healthcare professional who is trained in treating children. If you are older than 18, then you can see an adult provider.

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