Scary Things Teens Do that Parents Don’t Know They’re Doing: Diabulimia


“M” was an attractive, effervescent 18 year old girl when I first met her. As one of my roommates, she loved to be around her friends and talk non-stop. She also would steal several bags of Milanos double chocolate cookies from the kitchen cabinet; eat them all in one sitting, and not gain and ounce. She was hiding a huge weight-loss secret. She had diabulimia; the diabetic’s eating disorder.  This disorder has joined other well-researched eating disorders such as Anorexia and Bulimia, and lesser known unstudied eating disorders like Wannarexia.

The facts:

Up to about 1/3 of young women and teens with Type 1 diabetes skimp or withhold on their insulin doses in a scary attempt to lose weight, according to new research out of the Joslin Diabetes Center. Girls and women who skip or skimp on these doses are more likely to suffer negative and serious side effects such as kidney failure, foot problems, and even death at a young age. In fact, diabulimia triples the risk of premature death about women who have diabetes.

Other studies on diabulimia indicate that these young women have higher rates of both nerve damage and eye problems.

In addition, young women with Type 1 diabetes are more than twice as likely to develop a full blown eating disorder (i.e. anorexia, bulimia) than women without diabetes who are the same age as them.

The Warning Signs

  • unexplained elevations in A1C values
  • consistent and persistent problems with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) (these can be fatal)
  • unusual and extreme concerns about weight and body shape
  • an obvious change in eating patterns and food-related behavior
  • exercise bulimia— unusual and extreme patterns of concentrated exercise (sometimes associated with frequent hypoglycemia)
  • missing monthly period—called, amenorrhea

The Risks:

  • higher A1C levels
  • higher risk of developing infections
  • more frequent episodes of DKA
  • more frequent hospital and emergency room visits
  • higher rates and earlier onset of diabetes complications – nerve damage, eye disease, kidney disease and possible heart disease

Think you know someone with the problem? Ways to catch it:

The Strait Approach: Ask them about Diabulimia

Have they ever heard of diabulimia? Thought about it? Do they know the risks? Sometimes hearing about it or having a conversation about it can reveal what’s going on in the other person’s head.

The Direct Check: Verify their insulin intake

Is insulin being used? If insulin is being used correctly, there should be a consistent decrease in the bottle, insulin syringes used, and medical supplies discarded (i.e. alcohol swabs, gauze).

Weight Loss Monitoring: Witness side effects

Are they losing weight? Are they binge eating? Are they losing weight, showing signs of dehydration, exhaustion, depression, or ketoacidosis? If they are using insulin correctly and eating a healthy diet, they should have normal energy and typical and predictable weight patterns.

Intervention: Getting Help

Are you certain that there is a problem? If so, talk to the person who you believe to be affected by Diabulimia. Express your concern and your support. Turn to a trained doctor who can help the person deal with these very real issues. They typically do not go away by themselves.

Call the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) for more information or a referral (800-931-2237). They can also provide you with a referral if you fill out their referral form that is available on their website. You can also submit a question. Finally, parents, friends, and family members can also learn how to support their loved one through this trying time through the Parents, Family, and Friends Network.

As Powerful Parents, we all need to stay ahead of the curve and know what our children are doing. While we are making progress everyday to help our teens move forward and people speaking out on behalf of girls and women, we still have a long way to go. Let’s help our teens together.

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10 Responses

  1. Laura Adkins wrote:

    This issue of diabulimia is part of a larger problem of girls and women being unhappy with their body image because of external pressures. Our society imposes such an unattainable standard that girls and women are left feeling ugly and insufficient.

    The root of the problem is in self confidence — we need to do all we can to convince girls that they look great just as they are and don’t need to try and conform to an unrealistic stereotype.

    I found a great article that deals with what we can do to stay healthy and strong in a natural way at all phases of life. I’m trying to stick to that approach in the face of all the pressure.

    I’d like to know what others are doing to deal with this issue…

  2. Thank you, Laura. You are quite correct. You’ll see from some of my other articles on body image and children that eating disorders and dieting is a pervasive problem that has been brought on by societal standards or thinness.

    We all need to help our children and teens gain an inner self confidence that will help them thrive despite societal pressures. That’s truly being a powerful parent!

    Best regards,
    Dr. Robyn

  3. Robyn, great article. I read a lot about this last year around this time, when I was informed by one of our Shaping Youth board advisors that it was creeping onto the scene.

    Here’s a great thread on Women’s Health News about it, that’s still going strong a year later (54 comments & counting) http://womenshealthnews.wordpress.com/2007/06/18/diabulimia-new-eating-disorder-among-diabetics/

    Also, agree on the overall body image front, and wanted to share this first person post about diabulimia too: http://www.about-face.org/blog/archives/131

    Since this is so incredibly important on the life-saving front for teens, perhaps we should debut your new Shaping Youth correspondent status with a re-post of this later in the week and have you do an intro about the media’s role in this as a prelude to same.

    What do you think? (that Joslin study is new to me, so I’ll leave the link on WHN to your article too…very helpful!)

  4. […] articles that featured articles about dieting were more likely five years later to engage in extreme weight-loss practices such as vomiting than girls who never read such articles. This result was not influenced by whether […]

  5. […] articles that featured articles about dieting were more likely five years later to engage in extreme weight-loss practices such as vomiting than girls who never read such articles. This result was not influenced by whether […]

  6. Good jobb.

  7. […] way, has become normalized. That means that those people who are NOT dieting, participating in some abnormal or disordered eating patterns, or trying to alter their body through surgery, drugs, or laxative […]

  8. […] way, has become normalized. That means that those people who are NOT dieting, participating in some abnormal or disordered eating patterns, or trying to alter their body through surgery, drugs, or laxative […]

  9. […] easy to figure out why so many girls (and boys) suffer from poor body image, eating disorders, scary eating practices, too much pressure, and low self […]

  10. […] attractive. No wonder why so many girls (and boys) suffer from poor body image, eating disorders, scary eating practices, too much pressure, and low self […]

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