The Binge-Purge Cycle in Bulimia

Understanding the cycle is the important first step to stop it

Comfort Food
Comfort Food. Justin Sullivan / Staff / Getty Images

The binge-purge cycle is a cycle of behaviors, thoughts and emotions experienced by many people who suffer from the eating disorder bulimia nervosa.

It repeats itself over and over, and you may think it's impossible to stop. But understanding this pattern of behavior actually is one of the best ways to figure out how to stop it and get on the road to recovery.

Triggering Event or Emotion for Binge-Purge Cycle

Everyone has something that triggers the beginning of a binge-purge cycle.

These triggers don't cause 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 binging and purging.

Many people identify very specific emotions as triggers, 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.

Dieting, or restricting how much you eat, is another way that many binges are triggered.

Regardless of the specific emotion or event, identifying your own triggers is one way to recognize "red flags" that mean you need to do something different.

Binge-Eating Episode

As you might imagine, binge eating is one of the main behaviors in the binge-purge cycle.

It may begin with eating comfort foods to soothe the negative emotions related to the triggering 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.

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 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.

Physical and Emotional Results of Cycle

After a binge, most people feel uncomfortably, 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, disgust and/or self criticism. These emotions lead to the purge part of the cycle.

Purging Episode Often Follows Quickly

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 may even decide to begin restricting his food intake. Unfortunately, research shows 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.


    American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed., Text Revision). Washington, DC.

    Tribole, E. & Resch, E.(2012). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary program that works. New York, NY: St. Martin's Griffin.

    Continue Reading