Statistics on Bulimia

The statistics on bulimia are shocking to most people. Eating disorders occur across a spectrum of people and can affect individuals of any gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic group. Bulimia statistics tell us that the lifetime prevalence of bulimia nervosa in the United States is 1.5% in women and 0.5% in men. This translates to approximate 4.7 million females and 1.5 million males who will have their lives threatened by this potentially deadly disorder. While bulimia occurs most commonly in the adolescent and young adult years, it has been diagnosed in patients as young as six years old as well as among older adults.

What is Bulimia?

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder (ED) and like all EDs is complicated and not-fully-understood. It is caused by a mixture of genetics, temperamental and environmental factors. People with bulimia compulsively binge on large amounts of food and then attempt to purge the calories through compensatory behaviors like vomiting, use of laxatives, use of diet pills and exercise. The shame associated with this cycle means those with bulimia will go to great lengths to hide their disorder.

Eating disorders are triggered by a negative energy balance (burning more calories than you take in), often, but not always, accompanied by weight loss. The initial calorie restriction is commonly a diet that is undertaken in response to a variety of potential environmental stressors, such as bullying, fat-shaming, weighing in schools, nutrition education, pressure to be thin, requirement for sports, or being told by a doctor to lose weight. Other times the negative energy balance is the result of an illness or trauma such as sexual abuse that causes a person to lose his or her appetite.

Many people with bulimia have co-existing psychiatric conditions with anxiety and depression being very common. Those prone to bulimia often have trouble regulating emotion and may be described by family as “all-or-nothing” people. Engaging in dieting or disordered eating is a risk factor for the development of bulimia nervosa. Sometimes bulimia nervosa follows the development of anorexia nervosa when the body rebels against the consistent deprivation of food.

There are exciting new studies being done utilizing functional MRIs that reveal there are very real neural processing differences between a normal brain and that of someone with bulimia.


Additional Statistics on Bulimia and Facts

  • Persons with bulimia are often normal weight or even overweight.
  • Lifetime prevalence for bulimia nervosa is higher in Latino and African-American populations.
  • Bulimia nervosa appears to be affecting people at younger ages and the average age of onset is in the late teens.
  • 30-70% of those with bulimia also have an addictive disorder.
  • Shoplifting is common in those with bulimia nervosa due to the high cost of foods and possibly impulse control issues.
  • Self-harm is a common comorbid condition affecting 34% of those with bulimia.
  • Statistics on bulimia show that an estimated 10-15% of people with bulimia are male.
  • Homosexual and bisexual males are at greater risk for developing bulimia than heterosexual males.
  • Eating disorders among male athletes are the rise, especially in sports where leanness is the preferred body type or “cutting weight” is expected.
  • 10-66% of those with bulimia suffer sialadenosis or swelling of the parotid glands.
  • Electrolyte imbalances such as Hypokalemia, hypochloremia, hyperphosphatemia, and metabolic alkalosis are common with frequent purging.
  • There is an increased risk of suicide among those with bulimia nervosa.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the gold standard treatment for bulimia nervosa.
  • Some studies show that 60 mg of fluoxetine (Prozac) can help with symptoms.
  • Only approximately 1 in 10 people with bulimia receive treatment.
  • Bulimia statistics tell us that relapse is common, occurring in approximately 30-50% of cases.
  • Suicide is a common cause of death in bulimia nervosa.
  • Going solely on data from death certificates in the United States that list bulimia as a cause of death, the mortality rate is 3.9% (it’s important to note that cardiac arrest and other health issues are frequently listed instead of bulimia).
  • The best hope for a full recovery without lifetime medical complications is early, aggressive intervention.

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Marques, L., Alegria, M., Becker, A. E., Chen, C., Fang, A., Chosak, A., & Diniz, J. B. (2011). Comparative Prevalence, Correlates of Impairment, and Service Utilization for Eating Disorders across U.S. Ethnic Groups: Implications for Reducing Ethnic Disparities in Health Care Access for Eating Disorders. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 44(5), 412–420. doi:10.1002/eat.20787

Mortality and Eating Disorders | National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015.

Rushing, J. M., Jones, L. E., & Carney, C. P. (2003). Bulimia Nervosa: A Primary Care Review. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 5(5), 217–224.

Smink, F. R. E., van Hoeken, D., & Hoek, H. W. (2012). Epidemiology of Eating Disorders: Incidence, Prevalence and Mortality Rates. Current Psychiatry Reports, 14(4), 406–414. doi:10.1007/s11920-012-0282

About The Author:

JD Ouellette is an educator and the mother of a young adult in strong recovery from anorexia. She is a member of the UCSD Eating Disorders Center’s Parent Advisory Committee, a parent mentor for UCSD, an active member of Eating Disorder Parent Support, a co-ed online support community, and co-administrates International Eating Disorder Action and a member of the Joint Commission’s Behavioral Health Care Professional and Technical Advisory Committee.

Written – 2015