What Is Anorexia?

Anorexia, or anorexia nervosa, is a serious eating disorder characterised by a distorted body image and an intense fear of gaining weight. Individuals with anorexia often engage in extreme dietary restrictions, leading to significant weight loss and potential health complications. People may see themselves as overweight despite their low body weight and struggle with maintaining a healthy relationship with food. However, not every person with anorexia has a low body weight. Left untreated, this mental health challenge leads to severe physical, emotional, and psychological outcomes.

Anorexia Physical Characteristics

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that drastically impacts a person’s health and manifests in various distinctive physical characteristics. It is characterised by low self-esteem and severe self-imposed dietary restrictions, resulting in substantial weight loss.

Common physical signs and symptoms of anorexia include the following:

  • Extreme weight loss
  • Protruding bones and joints
  • Dry, yellowish skin
  • Thinning hair and brittle nails
  • Excessive sensitivity to cold weather
  • Absence of menstrual periods (amenorrhea)
  • Fatigue and dizziness

Anorexia Behaviours

In addition to the physical symptoms of anorexia, this disorder is characterised by a range of behaviours reflecting the individual’s distorted relationship with food, body image, and self-worth. These behaviours are often driven by an intense fear of gaining weight and a desire for control.

In order to prevent weight gain, individuals with anorexia exhibit the following behaviours:

  • Obsessive calorie tracking and restriction of calorie intake
  • Avoiding certain types of food
  • Excessive exercise routines
  • Frequent weighing
  • Preoccupation with one’s body weight and shape
  • Avoidance of social situations involving food
  • Wearing oversized clothes to hide weight loss
young woman measuring her waist

What Is Bulimia?

Bulimia, or bulimia nervosa, is an eating disorder characterised by recurring episodes of binge eating (consuming large amounts of food) followed by compensatory behaviours, also known as purging. This cycle of overeating and attempting to “purge” or rid the body of calories harms physical health, emotional well-being, and self-esteem.

Bulimia Physical Characteristics

Bulimia nervosa is marked by distinct physical characteristics resulting from the cycle of binge eating and purging behaviours that define the disorder. These behaviours affect the body, impacting various systems and functions.

Common physical signs and symptoms of bulimia include the following:

  • Weight fluctuations
  • Tooth erosion and enamel damage
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as acid reflux
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Calluses on the knuckles and hands
  • Dehydration

Bulimia Behaviours

Bulimia nervosa is characterised by a range of behaviours centring around the binge-purge cycle, often driven by feelings of guilt, shame, and a distorted body image. These behaviours attempt to gain a sense of control over food intake and body weight.

People with bulimia typically exhibit the following behaviours:

  • Consuming large amounts of food in a short period (binge eating)
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Misuse of laxatives, diuretics, and enemas
  • Intense exercise regimens
  • Fasting or strict dieting
  • Maintaining secrecy around eating habits

Anorexia and Bulimia Similarities

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are both severe eating disorders that share several similarities in terms of their underlying psychological factors and harmful effects on individuals. Both mental health challenges often stem from a distorted perception of one’s body and an intense fear of weight gain. Anorexia and bulimia require comprehensive interventions for effective treatment and recovery.

Below is a list of similarities between these two eating disorders:

  • Obsessive thoughts about food, appearance, and body shape
  • Secretive behaviours related to eating habits
  • Low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy
  • Potential severe physical health consequences

Key Differences Between Anorexia and Bulimia

Despite the similarities, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are distinct eating disorders with differing characteristics and behaviours. Acknowledging the difference between anorexia and bulimia is crucial for tailored treatment approaches.

Key differences between these two eating disorders include the following:

  • Anorexia involves severe food restriction, while bulimia includes episodes of binge eating and compensatory behaviours
  • Anorexia is often characterised by rigid dietary rules, whereas bulimia involves a cycle of overeating and purging
  • People with anorexia tend to have a significantly low body weight, while those with bulimia usually maintain a relatively normal weight

Mutual Risk Factors of Anorexia and Bulimia

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa share several common factors that contribute to the development of these eating disorders. Below is a list of the biological, psychological, and social factors that make individuals more likely to develop anorexia or bulimia.


Biological risk factors contribute to the development of anorexia and bulimia. These factors encompass genetic influences, neurotransmitter dysregulation, hormonal changes, and brain alterations that collectively influence the onset and progression of these complex eating disorders.

Examples of biological risk factors include:

  • Genetic predispositions (i.e. family history of eating disorders)
  • Neurotransmitter imbalances – disruptions in serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine
  • Hormonal irregularities – hormone changes that impact appetite, stress responses, and body weight regulation
  • Brain alterations – altered brain networks related to appetite regulation, emotional processing, and cognitive control


Psychological risk factors are crucial in the development of anorexia and bulimia. These factors encompass emotional vulnerabilities, distorted perceptions, and cognitive patterns that contribute to the development and maintenance of these complex eating disorders.

Examples of psychological risk factors include:

  • Self-image distortion – a warped perception of one’s own body, often idealising thinness
  • Perfectionism – high standards and self-criticism fueling the need for control
  • Low self-esteem – a low sense of self-worth related to weight and appearance
  • Obsessive thoughts – preoccupation with food and body weight
  • Impulsivity – difficulties with impulse control and emotional regulation
  • Negative emotions – anxiety, depression, and stress


Social risk factors play a significant role in developing eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia. Societal pressures, cultural norms, and interpersonal dynamics can significantly affect a person’s relationship with their body and their approach to food. These circumstances potentially trigger or exacerbate unhealthy eating habits, especially for young and impressionable individuals.

Examples of social risk factors include:

  • Media influence – unrealistic beauty standards in media that glorify thin bodies or promote dieting
  • Family and peer pressure – pressure to lose weight within the individual’s family or social circle
  • Bullying – negative comments or teasing about one’s body frame and weight
  • Cultural expectations – prioritisation of certain body types as a part of certain cultural and social practices
  • Social isolation – alienation and disconnection, leading to a need for control or a way to cope with emotions
young woman rejecting food

Recovering From Anorexia or Bulimia

Recovery from anorexia or bulimia is a complex journey with various challenges. The emotional turmoil and distorted self-perception may lead to relapses, creating a cycle of demotivating setbacks. The difficulties on this journey result from the intricate connection between the psychological and physical aspects of these disorders. Overcoming the deeply ingrained beliefs that fuel restrictive eating or binging and purging behaviours requires immense mental resilience. Breaking free from these patterns requires medical advice and proactive treatment options to address the underlying emotional triggers and introduce healthier coping strategies.

Furthermore, the social and environmental challenges during recovery can be daunting. Navigating a society that often emphasises unrealistic beauty standards and values thinness can aggravate feelings of inadequacy and hinder progress. Recovering individuals might feel isolated or misunderstood, struggling to relate to peers who don’t comprehend the nuances of their journey. Additionally, weight restoration, a critical component of therapy and recovery, can be physically uncomfortable and emotionally distressing. However, with proactive support, individuals can recover and live healthy lives.

How to Support a Loved One

Supporting a loved one with anorexia, bulimia, or any other eating disorder requires a lot of patience and compassion. First and foremost, open communication is essential. Initiate non-judgmental conversations to express your concern and willingness to listen without criticism. Educate yourself about these eating disorders to gain a better understanding of the challenges your loved one is facing. Offer consistent support and let your loved one know you are there to provide a safe space for them to share their feelings and experiences.

Practical assistance is crucial as well. Encourage your loved one to seek professional help, such as therapy and medical guidance, and offer to help research and schedule appointments. Avoid commenting on their appearance, weight, or eating habits, as this could trigger feelings of shame and exacerbate the situation. Instead, engage in activities that promote body positivity. Encourage them to participate in hobbies they enjoy and spend quality time together. Ultimately, your unwavering support, understanding, and patience can play a pivotal role in your loved one’s journey towards recovery.

Anorexia and Bulimia Support with Nurseline Community Services

At Nurseline Community Services, we aim to promote a humanised, person-centred approach to supporting people with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders. Our clinicians provide home care services, allowing the people we serve to stay close to their loved ones and avoid the stress of hospitalisation.

We lead people with bulimia and anorexia on the pathway to regaining healthy eating habits while respecting their privacy, dignity, and independence. The Nurseline Community Services team follows meticulously tailored care plans aligning with each person’s needs and personal preferences. This way, we strive to create a better world for individuals with eating disorders.

If you need a quality care provider for yourself or a loved one with an eating disorder, Nurseline Community Services is the right place for you. We offer high-standard, CQC-regulated services for people with eating disorders across the UK, with our offices in Bristol, Birmingham, and Gloucester.

Contact us today, and we will design a personalised care plan catering to your unique requirements.