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Diabulimia... The Eating Disorder that Strikes Diabetic Teens

By June 21, 2007

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Diabulemia is a new phrase for a phenomenon that is not very well-known. It is another form of bulimia, an eating disorder that typically strikes teens and young adults who are type 1 diabetics.

People with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin everyday for the rest of their lives, because their pancreas no longer produces it. Insulin helps the body process blood glucose by allowing the glucose to move out of the blood and into the cells for energy. When the body doesn't make insulin, glucose keeps circulating in the blood, rising to higher and higher levels. This produces many symptoms, one of which is rapid weight loss as the body is starved for energy.

The disorder occurs when teens with type 1 start to withhold their insulin doses in order to lose weight. Girls, typically, who are obsessively concerned about body image and being thin, may adopt this disordered pattern of skipping their insulin doses to just taking the bare minimum dose to survive.

This eating disorder is extremely dangerous. Blood sugar that is too high for too long can cause serious complications. Diabetes is the number one cause of blindness in this country. Cardiovascular damage is also a complication of long periods of high blood sugar. Complications can include:

In addition to these complications, diabetic ketoacidosis can also develop if blood sugar goes too high. This is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate emergency intervention and can be fatal.

What can parents do to help their teen? Kids with diabetes, who are not in good metabolic control, are more likely to suffer from the complications of uncontrolled blood glucose. Early treatment is important because the longer an eating disorder continues, the harder it is to treat.

More from About.com's Eating Disorders Guide, Matt Tiemeyer... More from your Diabetes Guide... Photo by Blake Campbell
September 30, 2008 at 12:40 pm
(1) onmission says:

Thanks for putting this information out there. My daughter is a type 1 who developed Diabulimia after being diagnosed. The tragedy is that her endocrinologist advised her on how to misuse her insulin to lose weight. He nor any other healthcare specialist have ever mentioned this condition. I am outraged that information about diabulimia is not a common component of diabetic education. I plan on advocating for that change until it is a reality. Thanks for helping.

November 10, 2009 at 1:14 pm
(2) Aleshia says:

Im a juvenile diabetic, I was diagnosed when I was 9 years old, I am currently 21, yet I have not been diagnosed with Diabulemia, but have been neglecting my body by not treating my juvenile diabetes with the correct amount of insulin. I do believe that this, condition should be known, and obviously it’s not!! This makes me very angry, none of my endocrinologists have ever even thought that this could be the case with me. Even though I have known what I was doing I never told them. So I think if this was taught to new comers of juvenile diabetes, that it may bring awarness to young women and their families so that when they see the changes, just as they notice the ketones as they become present something can be done! This needs to happen. I strongly suggest it!! I have been a diabulemic for 6 years now and we have a choice in one hand life and the other death. Knowing the consequences and what can and will happen still doesnt change my mind, I still choose death! This must change for the rest of these young women, I struggle everyday and fight and argue with my mother everyday over things that I know I should be doing. So please if the information is out there on the internet, then why not in the doctors offices?? If it was maybe people being affected by diabulemia would try to find out more about it and find other ways of losing weight instead of putting their lives in jeopardy. Please all I ask for is for it to be talked about..

December 22, 2009 at 8:15 pm
(3) LLS says:

I had severe Diabulimia…I was diagnosed in 1983, at the age of 11, with Type 1 Diabetes. I followed my diet and took my insulin faithfully for several years. When I entered high school, that changed. I started sneaking food. I would walk down to the store, buy some Snickers or a large bag of Cheetos and eat it all. My eating habits were out of control and I started gaining weight. This in turn caused me to become depressed and eat even more. I discovered that by not taking my insulin at night, I would get up to pee all night (sometimes up to 10 times) and by morning the calories that I had consumed the previous day would be flushed out of my body, thus keeping me from gaining weight When I would go to my doctor, my hemoglobin A1c did not match up with my recorded blood sugars. That’s because I was lying about the numbers. My doctor asked me once if I had Diabulimia. I didn’t know what that was, so I told him no. For 14 years, I participated in this behavior almost daily. My hemoglobin A1c soared to over 12. I felt awful all the time. I knew I was slowly killing myself and I wanted to stop; however I had let the Diabulimia control my life. In 2001, while driving on the freeway to work one day, I suddenly noticed that I couldn’t see the cars around me. It really scared me, so I went to a retinologist and was diagnosed with retinopathy. He told me I was legally blind. I now had a diabetic complication and somehow I finally realized I had to take care of myself and take my insulin every time. It was not easy, but I overcame the Diabulimia. My blood sugars started improving and my hemoglobin A1c came down. Unfortunately, my body was already damaged and I had more complications. Gastroparesis, neuropathy, and nephropathy soon followed. In 2007 I was in complete kidney failure and had to start dialysis. Now I was dependent on a machine to stay alive. I was angry with myself because of how I had treated my body for so many years. Because I was legally blind and so sick from the other complications, I could not drive anymore. I couldn’t do many of the things I used to do and enjoy. My life was not what I wanted it to be. But I chose not to take my insulin. I thought that somehow I wouldn’t have the complications. I wanted to share my story, because I want parents to know that many kids who have Type 1 Diabetes either have or will develop this eating disorder. They will lie to you about it and can be very good at keeping it a secret. I mastered this quite well for years. Keep connected to your child and watch for signs or symptoms of this eating disorder. Get your child help IMMEDIATELY! If you have either had this eating disorder or know of someone who has, please help save lives by educating others about it. We must get it to the forefront of Type 1 Diabetic education. In June 2008, I had a kidney/pancreas transplant. Even though my diabetes is gone (I no longer have to take any insulin), I will always have to deal with the complications that I have due to my Diabulimia.

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