The Dangers of Diabulimia

Diabulimia is a trend that is very disturbing because it greatly endangers the diabetic woman (or man) who withhold insulin to help weight loss.

“Diabulimia” is a term used to describe people with diabetes who skip or decrease insulin injections in order to lose weight. Although diabulimia is not yet an official medical condition, the term is being used increasingly by experts to describe behavior that is becoming more common among diabetics.

Unlike type 2 diabetes, which is associated with obesity, type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition caused by the body’s inability to produce enough insulin to process glucose in the blood stream. People with type 1 diabetes must inject insulin from one or more times each day. When type 1 diabetics don’t get enough insulin, they are at risk of coma or death. Long-term complications include blindness, kidney failure, amputations and nerve damage.

An MSNBC interview with a woman named Lee Ann Thill paints a vivid picture of the dangers of diabulimia. As a teenager, Thill was obsessed about her weight and appearance. She had begun to experiment with bulimia but was still unhappy about a recent weight gain. She also had type 1 juvenile diabetes and needed to take daily insulin shots. While attending a summer camp for diabetic teens, Thill overheard two counselors lecturing another camper about skipping insulin to lose weight. Ignoring the counselors’ warning about the risk of coma or long-term damage to the kidney or eyes, Thill began to take just enough insulin to function. She continued the practice for 17 years, despite serious repercussions that she suffered in her twenties, including a ruptured blood vessel in her eye and a diagnosis of kidney damage. Today, Thill is worried that her obsession with weight may have shortened her life expectancy.

Teenage girls and young women are the most likely diabetics to practice diabulimia. According to MSNBC, about one third of the 1.5 million women in the U.S. with type 1 diabetes have skipped or skimped on their insulin dosage to lose weight. In addition to taking daily insulin, diabetics must count carbohydrates and follow a strict diet. Studies have found that women with type 1 diabetes are more than twice as likely to develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives. This could be related in part to the extreme amount of attention they must pay to what they eat.

Like anorexia and bulimia, diabulimia must be treatment with therapy and nutrition education. In addition, diabulimics must be convinced that insulin is critically important for their health and wellbeing. Few long-term studies on treatment of diabulimia are currently available. As the condition becomes more publicized experts hope that more diabulimics will seek help and more will be learned about this dangerous condition.