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Diabulimia: The Risk Some Diabetics Take To Avoid Weight Gain

Diabetics with diabulimia take less or no insulin to avoid unwanted pounds.

They need insulin to survive, but some Type 1 diabetics will take less or none at all to avoid weight gain.

Researchers estimate 10 to 20 percent of females with diabetes in their mid-teens, and 30 to 40 percent of those in their late teens or young adult years, experience diabulimia – an eating disorder with serious consequences. In this edition of Vital Signs, Dr. William Fears with Southwest Endocrinology and Diabetes, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice in Arlington, explains.

From Dr. Fears’s interview about diabulimia…

The incentive to reduce or skip insulin use: “Insulin’s a hormone that causes your body to take carbohydrate and make it into fat. So a lack of insulin causes you to breakdown fat. And in women, particularly adolescent girls, they have a certain body image, and so if someone comes up to them and says ‘Oh you’re looking great’ because they’ve lost some weight, they might stop taking their insulin or cut down on their insulin so they’ll lose weight.”

Is this someone with a previous eating disorder? “There are several things that are tied in with eating disorders - feelings of self-esteem, for example. Sexual abuse. Of course, diabetes doesn’t improve your self-esteem because sometimes because you think, you know, that you’re somewhat isolated.”

Consequences of adolescents not taking insulin: “People don’t feel good. They’re walking around with blood sugars of 400. They won’t do well in school. They won’t develop normally. Sometimes they have stunted growth, and eventually they get into big trouble.”

How to treat diabulimia: “The physician should first understand that it’s a problem. Identify those patients that have it. And if they can’t help the patient understand what’s going on, then try to get them into an eating disorder clinic.”

For more information:

National Eating Disorders Association

Signs and Symptoms of Diabulimia 

Basics about diabetes 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.