Dealing With the Binge-Purge Cycle in Bulimia

Comfort Food
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The binge-purge cycle is a cycle of behaviors, thoughts, and emotions experienced by many people who suffer from the eating disorder bulimia nervosa. A portion of this cycle may also be experienced by people with binge eating disorder.


The cycle looks like this: diet-binge-purge-repeat.

It typically repeats itself over and over, and if you are suffering from bulimia nervosa, you may feel like it's impossible to stop. But understanding this pattern of behavior is one of the best ways to figure out how to stop it and start on the road to recovery.

Triggering Events

It is important to recognize that the model above, derived from cognitive-behavioral therapy, shows how a binge cycle is maintained. It does not indicate how the eating disorder first developed.

Every binge cycle has an event or series of events that trigger the cycle. These triggers need not have caused the eating disorder itself—in many cases, the triggering events or emotions are different every time. But these triggers do start a new cycle of bingeing and purging.

Many binges stem from food deprivation. Individuals who diet or restrict their eating, even in subtle ways, set themselves up for binge eating. Food is a basic need and when that need is not met, it is normal to intake a larger than normal amount when you do allow yourself to eat again.

Many people identify specific emotions as triggers for binges, such as sadness, loneliness, guilt, or feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. These emotions, which so frequently are difficult to handle, may be experienced throughout the course of a day or days.

They may be caused by a specific event or series of events, such as an argument with a loved one, criticism at work, or self-criticism. People tend to be more vulnerable to emotional eating when they have been restricting their eating. Regardless of the specific emotion or event, identifying your own triggers is one way to recognize "red flags" which mean you need to do something different.

Binge-Eating Episode

Recurrent episodes of binge eating, which includes a loss of control (LOC) over eating during the episode, is a key feature of binge eating disorder, or BED. If someone does not have LOC, it could just simply be overeating and is different than BED with LOC.

Binge eating is defined as eating more in a single setting than most people would. Although this definition is very subjective, binges are much larger than a regular meal and can often contain several thousand calories.

Many people describe binges in terms of feeling "out of control" or not really even knowing how much they are eating. Some people describe the experience as being "zoned out" as they're eating — they then look down to find empty boxes/containers.

Forbidden Foods

Binge eating is one of the main behaviors in the binge-purge cycle. It may begin innocently with eating a small portion of food that is typically considered “off-limits.” After eating this portion many people feel guilty and decide to “eat the rest” as they’ve already “blown their diet” and would rather finish the rest of the forbidden food so it won’t be around to tempt them tomorrow.

Alternatively, a binge can begin with eating comfort foods to soothe the negative emotions related to an upsetting event and then continue into a full binge. It can also be your body's way of getting nourishment when you haven't been eating enough food. Many times a binge happens after skipping meals and/or restricting intake.

Physical and Emotional Impact

After a binge, most people feel uncomfortable, or even painfully, full. This feeling goes beyond the fullness you experience after, say, a major holiday meal with family and friends. It's simply the result of eating so much.

Along with these physical pains comes emotional pain, possibly including feelings of embarrassment, shame, guilt, disgust and/or self-criticism. These emotions typically lead to the purge part of the cycle.

Purging Episode

For many sufferers, the time span between binging and purging is very short. Purging becomes a way to relieve oneself of the negative feelings (physical and emotional) of the binge.

Most people think of purging as self-induced vomiting, but it can also include laxative and/or diuretic use. Sometimes people use other behaviors, such as exercise, to compensate for the additional calories consumed in a binge.

Some people will have one binge and purge episode and then go into a period of calm. Others may binge and purge multiple times before stopping.

Calm Period Before Cycle Restarts

After a binge and purge episode, there may be a period of calm. At this point, a person may resolve to never binge or purge again. He or she may even decide to begin restricting his or her food intake. Unfortunately, this will simply lead to binge eating again.

There are also people who acknowledge that they will likely binge and purge again. They feel hopeless to stop the cycle.

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing bingeing and purging, the first thing is to know that recovery is possible. You may be able to apply some strategies on your own. Keep food records to understand your own patterns. Learn some strategies for breaking the cycle. Finally, seek help from a qualified professional.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Harrington BC, Jimerson M, Haxton C, Jimerson DC. Initial evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Am Fam Physician. 2015;91(1):46-52.

  3. Mond JM, Calogero RM. Excessive exercise in eating disorder patients and in healthy women. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2009;43(3):227-34. doi:10.1080/00048670802653323

  4. Mott LA, Lumsden BD, editors. Understanding eating disorders: Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and obesity. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2019.

By Susan Cowden, MS
Susan Cowden is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders.