Weight Suppression, Dieting, and Bulimia

Young woman on meal plan at the market

Contributor: Leigh Bell, BA, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

Dieting and weight suppression (one’s highest-ever weight compared to one’s current weight) are research-proven factors for the development of and recovery from bulimia. Weight suppression is a robust and consistent contributor to developing bulimia.

Dieting, on the other hand, is generally assumed to contribute to bulimia but some research reveals it may actually reduce binge-purge episodes. Still, both factors are important in understanding someone’s propensity for bulimia.

The More Weight Lost, the Less Chance of Success in Recovery

The amount of weight lost by people struggling with bulimia is directly tied to the severity of symptoms and chances of recovery, several studies show. One study looked at women with bulimia who were in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is the most common therapeutic tactic for treatment of bulimia1.

Women in the study who dropped out of treatment had significantly greater levels of weight suppression than those who completed the treatment; and women who remained in treatment but continued to binge and purge also had significantly greater levels of weight suppression than those who abstained from the binge-purge cycle.

Is Dieting the Culprit or a Treatment Method?

Now, people with bulimia, when they are diagnosed, normally fall into a normal weight range, but on average, when they show up for treatment, they weigh about 15-20 pounds less than their highest previous weight. (Butryn et al., 2006).

Young man buying fresh vegetables at farmer's marketHere’s where it gets a bit tricky. Extreme dieting usually causes weight loss, and that’s weight suppression, so one would think dieting is a direct contributor to the development of bulimia. And it can be, yet some research suggests dieting alone may reduce bulimic behaviors in women. Women dieting at high frequency — not necessarily losing weight — had decreased the frequency of binge-eating episodes, one 10-year follow-up study found2. The opposite was true in men, whose risk for binge-eating increased with dieting.

Weight Maintenance Can Help with Bulimic Behaviors

Another study found the same results and even suggests a “weight maintenance diet is an effective prevention program for bulimic symptoms.”3 Again, this is weight maintenance, not extreme dieting to achieve extreme weight loss.

Dieting is generally deemed a risk factor for bulimia because someone diets, eventually caves and eats, then feels badly for eating and purges, and the cycle begins. This may be the case in many with bulimia, however research again proves every case of an eating disorder is different but equally important.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What do you believe is the impact of the research surrounding weight suppression, dieting and bulimia?

About the Author:

Leigh Bell holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in Creative Writing and French from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a published author, journalist with 15 years of experience, and a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Leigh is recovered from a near-fatal, decade-long battle with anorexia and the mother of three young, rambunctious children.


  1. Butryn, M., Lowe, M., Safer, D., Agras, W. Stewart. (2006). Weight suppression is a robust predictor of outcome in the cognitive-behavioral treatment of bulimia nervosa. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 115(1), 62-67.
  2. Keel P., Heatherton T. (2010). Weight Suppression Predicts Maintenance and Onset of Bulimic Syndromes at 10-Year Follow-up. Journal of abnormal psychology, 119(2), 268-275.
  3. Stice, E., Presnell, K., Groesz, L., Shaw, H. (2005) Effects of a weight maintenance diet on bulimic symptoms: An experimental test of the dietary restraint theory. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 24(4), 402-412.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 22nd, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com