What is Diabulimia?
It isn’t surprising if you’ve never heard of ‘diabulimia.’ It is an eating disorder that is clinically apparent, but which isn’t medically recognised at the time of writing this.
Diabetes and Bulimia
Diabulimia is a contraction of the words ‘diabetes’ and ‘bulimia.’ It is an eating disorder sharing common symptoms and patterns of behaviour with bulimia, but it affects only people suffering from Type 1 diabetes (T1D).
Individuals with bulimia have an unhealthy obsession with their weight and the appearance of their body. They often starve themselves, but unable to control the backlash in appetite, they end up binge on large amounts of food. Later, feeling depressed or anxious about the inevitable weight gain resulting from the food binge, they purge themselves by vomiting, taking laxatives, or other forms of compensatory behaviour.
People with T1D are prone to bulimia due to their need to be hyper-conscious of how much they eat and what they eat so that they can control the amount of sugar in their blood. They repeatedly measure and monitor their blood sugar levels and study food labels to determine how much sugar they will take in with different foods. Too much sugar and their kidneys weaken; too little sugar, they might pass out with the least exertion. Food can often be an ally or an enemy for a person with T1D.
The main issue in living with T1D is control – constantly measuring food intake, counting frequency of meals and snacks, and remembering to take insulin. While taking insulin is life-saving, it can sometimes be a chore – tedious, painful, and inconvenient. The temptation not to take insulin shots can be overwhelming, especially since not taking insulin or taking less insulin than is prescribed can cause weight loss. This can lead to the manipulation of insulin intake as a means to control weight.
What are the signs of diabulimia?
People with diabulimia tend to hide food so that they can binge on it in private. This ‘binge food’ is usually items they deprive themselves of for fear of causing a sugar high – crisps, biscuits, chocolate, cake, sweets. However, where people with bulimia induce vomiting or abuse laxatives and diuretics to get rid of the excess sugar, those with diabulimia will skip an insulin shot or take less than what has been prescribed.
What happens to people with diabulimia?
Undiagnosed and untreated, people with diabulimia are living with a life-threatening condition. The kidneys may fail from exhaustion. Too much sugar in the blood thickens it, atrophying the smallest blood vessels in the eyes and potentially causing blindness. Stomach muscles can become weak or paralysed. They may lose sensation in their toes and feet, making them unaware of cuts and bruises and therefore leading to slower healing. In severe cases, an increase in blood pressure can lead to a heart attack.
Get help today
Treating diabulimia requires both medical and psychological interventions. It involves a thorough diagnosis and assessment, as well as well-planned interventions from a team of specialists. If you recognise the signs and you think that you or someone close to you may be suffering from diabulimia, do seek help. You might also find my recent book useful – ‘Eating Disorder Recovery Handbook – A Practical Guide to Long-Term Recovery.’