Purging is the behaviour of ridding the body of recently consumed energy in an attempt to prevent weight gain.1This can be vomiting (aka oral purging), but also includes overexercise and the use of laxatives/diuretics. We will focus on the former today.
For individuals living with eating disorders, purging is a dangerous way to try to manage weight as it can lead to several medical complications involving many different organs; the type of medical complication depends on the mode and frequency of purging.2Purging is also an ineffective and unsustainable way to manage weight. Firstly, purging does not prevent the body from absorbing any calories because digestion begins in the mouth, continues through the esophagus, stomach, and so on. Purging can only remove up to about half of the calories ingested.3Secondly, most of the weight loss after purging is due to water loss, which will be regained after water is consumed again. Thirdly, if the body is constantly denied nutrients and energy, it can begin to hold on to anything it gets, resulting in water retention. The body can also decrease its metabolic rate to compensate for nutrient loss, resulting in metabolism disturbances.3This blog post discusses several possible side effects and risks associated with purging.
All types of purging can be harmful for the digestive system. Oral purging interferes with stomach digestion and emptying, which can cause a host of side effects including: stomach pain, bloating, nausea, blood sugar fluctuations, bacterial infections, intestinal block, and constipation. It can also result in feelings of fullness after eating very small amounts of food. This is not a good thing because our bodies require a certain amount of food for energy and trying to eat adequate portion sizes afterwards may feel uncomfortable. Purging can also affect digestion by preventing the body from getting enough food and nutrients. Having an inadequate amount of food in the digestive tract can stop the body from trying to eliminate anything. This can in turn weaken intestinal muscles, and result in insufficient strength to propel digested food out of the body. This inability to digest food can lead to intestinal obstructions and prevent elimination. In addition, the pancreas can become inflamed, causing pain, nausea, and vomiting. The use of substances that induce purging can also damage nerves, leaving the body dependent on these substances for bowel movements.4In addition, they can cause rectal bleeding, hemorrhoids, and excessive diarrhea.2
Oral purging can also damage the esophagus, throat, mouth, teeth, and hands due to acidic stomach contents. Stomach acid can wear down the esophagus with frequent purging and eventually cause it to rupture. Purging can also cause acid reflux. Moreover, sores can develop on the throat resulting in painful swallowing and a hoarse voice.4In addition, the inside of the mouth, especially the soft palate, can become red, irritated, and cut.5 Stomach acid is so strong that it can even damage the skin on the back of the hand causing skin to harden or develop a scar.1Oral purging can also cause teeth to develop cavities or even break.2
All types of purging deplete the body of water and electrolytes. Frequent dehydration can cause urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and kidney failure.6Furthermore, sudden and severe dehydration can cause the body to go into a serious medical condition called low blood volume shock, which results in low blood pressure and a decreased amount of oxygen in the body.6Moreover, low electrolyte levels can impair nerve and muscle function, resulting in muscle cramps, and in more serious cases, heart issues. Balanced electrolyte levels are essential for proper heartbeat and contraction.4Without sufficient electrolytes and energy, the heart may become unable to adequate amounts of blood, resulting in low blood pressure and a low heart rate.4This can then lead to irregular heartbeats and increased risk of heart failure.4
By riding the body of essential nutrients, purging can also impair brain function. Symptoms such as difficulties concentrating, dizziness, brain fog, difficulties sleeping, and numbness/tingling in hands and feet.4In addition to impaired brain function, the immune system can become weak and increase the probability of getting sick.
As we have discussed, there are no real benefits associated with purging. Not only is purging harmful for our health, but it is also ineffective at managing weight. In fact, purging can make binge-eating episodes larger and more frequent as purging can give a false sense of security that all the effects of binging can be reversed.1However, as previously discussed, this is false because about half of the calories eaten will be absorbed, and the body will begin to do everything it can to hold on to as many nutrients as possible. Try to remind yourself that breaking your diet eating more than you planned is completely okay. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out for help from loved ones or trained professionals, they are there to help and support you. Understanding the dangerous signs and symptoms associated with purging can allow for early treatment and help prevent serious medical complications. However, the simplest way to take care of your body is to nourish it with essential nutrients; only then, will it fully support you in doing all the things you desire.
- Dangerous eating behaviours. In Kelty Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://keltyeatingdisorders.ca/types-of-disorders/dangerous-eating-behaviours/.
- Mehler, P. S., Marx, R. (2016). Identifying eating disorders: medical food for thought. In National Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/identifying-eating-disorders-medical-food-thought
- Vomiting and your health. (2018). In Centre for Clinical Interventions. Retrieved from https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Home/Resources/~/media/02EEAE7ED9C24FC699AFDA0573778554.ashx.
- Common health consequences of eating disorders. (2018). In National Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences.
- Dental complications of eating disorders. (2018). In National Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/dental-complications-eating-disorders.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018). Dehydration. In Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dehydration/symptoms-causes/syc-20354086.