Eating Disorders are a Political Issue: Bulimia Nervosa and Advanced Capitalism

If you know me even a little bit, you can imagine my glee at coming across a paper entitled “The Political Economy of Bulimia Nervosa.” YES! I exclaimed. Let’s explore the ways in which our systems of food production are linked to eating disorders. Let’s complicate the idea of “the social” as it relates to eating disorders and do an analysis of the complex socio-political and economic forces that govern our world.

So, let’s get right into it, shall we?

The Article

Pirie (2011) argues that it is important to understand eating disorders from a political economic perspective so that we can look beyond an equation of the “cultural” and media representations of femininity. The way in, he suggests, is through a look at how food systems have shifted since the time at which bulimia nervosa was introduced as a psychiatric diagnosis, around 1970.

The article is not the kind of research study I usually write about for this blog. It is more of a theoretical exploration. So, there were not participants and “method,” per se. Instead, the …

Whose Culture is it Anyway? Disentangling Culture and Eating Disorders – Part 2

In this post I’ll continue on the trend of considering the “culture bound” nature of eating disorders by looking at another commonly-cited article about eating disorders and culture. In this article, Keel and Klump (2003) look at the cultural and historical facets of anorexia and bulimia. They looked at whether eating disorders were present in other sociohistorical and cultural contexts in order to determine whether AN and BN are “culture bound.”

Their research, as I alluded to at the end of the first post in this series, suggests that anorexia is not culture bound (i.e., it can occur in the absence of certain aspects of culture), while bulimia is (i.e., it only/primarily appears in certain cultural contexts). As this finding might actually run counter to what popular press would have us believe, looking at this article provides us some interesting insight into how spin can really be everything. While I’m not 100% convinced that AN and BN differ in “culture-bound-ness,” I do think that this study offers us quite a bit to think about when we consider the …

I Need How Many Calories? Caloric Needs in Bulimia Nervosa Patients

In the 1980s, a few studies came out suggesting that patients with bulimia nervosa (BN) require fewer calories for weight maintenance than anorexia nervosa patients (e.g., Newman, Halmi, & Marchi, 1987) and healthy female controls (e.g., Gwirtsman et al., 1989).

Gwirtsman et al. (1989), after finding that patients with bulimia nervosa required few calories for weight maintenance than healthy volunteers, had these suggestions for clinicians:

When bulimic patients are induced to cease their binging and vomiting behavior, we suggest that physicians and dietitians prescribe a diet in which the caloric level is lower than might be expected. Our experience suggests that some patients will tend to gain weight if this is not done, especially when hospitalized. Because patients are often averse to any gain in body weight, this may lead to grave mistrust between patient and physician or dietitian.

Among many things, this ignores the fact that patients with bulimia nervosa, despite being in the so-called “normal” weight range may not be at their healthy weight.

It is not possible to determine at this point whether

Ambivalence and Eating Disorders: Inpatient Treatment, Belonging, and Identity

When Tetyana Tweeted and “Tumblr-ed” (is there a better name for putting something on Tumblr?) a quote from a qualitative research article about ambivalence and eating disorders, I knew I would want to write a blog post about it. Of course, life happened, and so this post is coming a little later than I had intended. Nonetheless, I am happy to be sharing a post about a fresh article by Karin Eli (2014) about eating disorders and ambivalence in the inpatient hospital setting. The article itself is published through PLOS One and so is also open access, in case you are interested in reading the original.


This article is about one aspect of a larger longitudinal study Eli conducted in Israel between 2005 and 2011. The broader study explores the “sensory experiences” (embodied feelings, sensations, and perceptions) of individuals with eating disorders and how these relate to identity. This paper considers one part of participants’ broader stories of having eating disorders; specifically, how individuals with eating disorders experienced inpatient hospitalization.

Eli conducted interviews with 13 participants. …

Polar Opposites? The Social Construction of Bulimia and Anorexia Nervosa

Some might argue that bulimia nervosa is more “hidden” than anorexia nervosa — it is not always obvious that someone is suffering from bulimia (though, I would argue, it is not always obvious that someone is suffering from any eating disorder). Even when it is “discovered,” BN is often placed in opposition with AN — as if the two were polar opposites.

Indeed, attempts to define a phenotype (a set of observable traits or characteristics) for AN and BN tend to oppose the two and to suggest that the people who develop AN are inherently different from those who develop BN. While I believe there is some scientific evidence for personality differences between the two, the degree of diagnostic crossover and symptom variability in eating disorders makes me feel like this split is at the very least overly simplistic.

What is interesting is how BN has come to occupy a very different place in our collective social imagination than AN. We know that preconceived notions about what it means to be an individual with an eating disorder in general can …

Clinical Utility of Weight Suppression in Bulimia Nervosa Treatment – Part II

In this post I will continue my discussion on weight suppression in bulimia nervosa (click here to read Part I). Just in case you happen to be reading the posts out of sequence, I will summarize the main points of that entry:

  1. Weight suppression is the difference between one’s current body weight and highest adult body weight.
  2. It has been found that individuals with BN are on average well below their highest historical weights (i.e. they are weight suppressed).
  3. Many studies have consistently found positive associations between WS and the onset and maintenance of BN symptoms.


Because most individuals with BN have undergone significant weight loss, this makes them susceptible to weight regain — much like obese individuals usually regain the weight they have lost. Indeed, evidence suggests that weight suppression predicts weight gain in individuals with BN during inpatient (Lowe et al., 2006) and outpatient treatment (Carter et al., 2008).

In contrast, other measures of weight history, such as highest or lowest body mass index (BMI)

HW vs. CW: Weight Suppression in Bulimia Nervosa – Part I

HW. CW. LW. GW1. GW2. GW3. UGW.

If you have (or have had) an eating disorder (or dieted and used online forums), chances are you know what those acronyms mean. And if you have browsed blogs written by eating disorder sufferers, chances are you have come across these acronyms too. After all, they are a prominent feature of many such blogs.

If you are lost, I’ll fill you in: the acronyms stand for Highest Weight, Current Weight, Lowest Weight, Goal Weight 1/2/3, and Ultimate Goal Weight (UGW). Unsurprisingly, most individuals with eating disorders, much like dieters, like to keep track of their weight loss — that is, the difference between the highest weight, HW, and the current weight, CW.

Researchers call this difference weight suppression (WSmore specifically, the highest adult body weight) and one’s current weight). It can be thought of as the extent to which an individual has reduced their weight through dieting. It is usually calculated based on self-reported highest adult body weights. (So those …

Bingeing Because Food is Yummy: A Stepping Stone Toward Recovery from Anorexia and Bulimia?

This may sound counterintuitive at first, but I’m thankful for two aspects of my eating disorder, which I believe helped me make the choice to aim towards recovery: the development of binge eating after chronic food restriction and the physical inability to purge through self-induced vomiting. Like many individuals diagnosed with anorexia nervosa that go on to develop binge eating, I tended to choose high-fat foods and sweets as my “go-to” food items. I had always enjoyed such foods and was a notorious junk food aficionado as a young girl (way before any eating disorder symptoms developed). Once the bingeing behavior started, I couldn’t stop.

Sitting with the discomfort after a binge made me seriously consider whether this was something I could maintain for any lengthy period of time, and that’s when I started getting help. In a sense, I believe my affection for sweet foods, and propensity to binge on them, was a “life saver” of sorts. I also think these behaviors got me used to eating foods that I had deemed “forbidden” while I was restricting. With this …

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for Bulimia Nervosa in the “Real World”: What’s the Evidence?

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is commonly described as the evidence-based treatment for bulimia nervosa. But do the findings from nearly perfectly crafted trials, with stringently followed protocols and “ideal” participants apply to the “real world”? How generalizable are the findings from carefully selected participants to clinical populations where, for one, the prevalence of psychiatric comorbidities is relatively high?

In other words, CBT has been shown to be efficacious (i.e., it works in a controlled experimental research trial setting) but is it effective (i.e., does it work in a clinical setting where clients might have multiple diagnoses and complex needs)?

This is precisely the question that Glenn Waller and colleagues sought to answer. They wanted to see whether CBT would work in a “routine clinical setting, where none of the exclusion-and protocol-based constraints […] apply.”


Participants were recruited from a publicly-funded outpatient ED service in the UK. The only exclusion criteria were psychosis, learning difficulties, and inability to communicate in English.

78 adult women (average age: 28; average BMI: 22) entered treatment:

  • 55 with bulimia nervosa (52 purging subtype and 3

Comorbid PTSD and Eating Disorders: Can Treating One Improve The Other?

Women with bulimia nervosa are three times more likely to struggle with PTSD than women without eating disorders, according to a study by Dansky and colleagues (1997). In that study, 37% of individuals with bulimia nervosa had lifetime PTSD, compared to 12% of women without eating disorders. That’s almost two in five.

Treating eating disorders is hard, but treating eating disorders with comorbid conditions is way harder. There is no consensus, it seems, as to what disorder(s) to treat first, or whether they should be treated simultaneously:

Brewerton (2004) suggests that eating problems should be addressed prior to treating PTSD because bingeing and purging contribute to a state of physical and emotional dysregulation. Fairburn (2008), however, suggests that significant comorbid disorders be treated prior to beginning CBT for eating disorders.

The issue is quite complex,

For example, the presence of severe depression, of which hopelessness and difficulty concentrating are core criteria, may present a barrier to treatment of the eating disorder. Furthermore, if eating is used to escape from or avoid intrusive memories or strong emotions, it