Bulimia Special Needs Factsheet

What Teachers Should Know

Bulimia, also known as bulimia nervosa, is an eating disorder in which people frequently eat large amounts of food over short periods of time (binge eat) and then force themselves to vomit (purge).

Bulimia is more common among females and often begins during the teen years. But it’s not just a “girl problem.” Boys can develop bulimia when they’re trying to reach a target weight for sports such as wrestling or swimming.

In addition to overeating and purging, students with bulimia may adopt other unhealthy behaviors to try to control weight, such as:

  • compulsive exercise
  • skipping meals
  • smoking
  • taking laxatives

Frequent vomiting and lack of nutrition associated with bulimia can cause stomach pain, as well as damage to the stomach and kidneys. Other problems can include tooth decay, and loss of periods in girls. Over time, bulimia can contribute to serious complications (such as heart problems, kidney failure, and severe malnutrition), and can even be fatal. It’s also often associated with mental health conditions like anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression.

Students who are bulimic may:

  • have an intense fear of gaining weight or show signs of weight fluctuation
  • make excuses to go to the bathroom immediately after meals
  • spend a lot of time exercising or working out
  • act withdrawn, anxious, depressed, and show signs of low self-esteem
  • avoid social activities and class parties that celebrate with food
  • require medical supervision and nutritional or psychological counseling
  • need additional time to make up homework or assignments missed due to absenteeism or medical appointments

What Teachers Can Do

Early detection and prevention services for bulimia, or any other eating disorder, can help ease symptoms and improve health.

Bulimia can have serious consequences and be difficult to treat. It may even require hospitalization. Treatment usually focuses on coping with the eating disorder and developing better approaches to thinking about and eating food.

You can be supportive by encouraging healthy attitudes about exercise and nutrition in your classroom. If you suspect that a student is bulimic, it is important to refer him or her for assistance. The school counselor or school nurse can help.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: June 2014