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Jane Fonda Reveals Struggle With Bulimia: Here Are the Signs

Fonda overcame a decades-long eating disorder. Here’s what you need to know.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Legendary actor and political activist Jane Fonda revealed startling details about her decades-long struggle with eating disorders, including bulimia and anorexia, in an interview while promoting her upcoming new film 80 for Brady.

"I was bulimic and anorexic" during her rise as a Hollywood star in her 20s and 30s, said Fonda, now an active 85, in an interview with podcast Call Her Daddy host Alex Cooper. She added: "I'm becoming a starlet, and there's so much emphasis on how you look, and it was a … constant trigger for me."

"It seems so innocent in the beginning," Fonda said, adding: "You don't realize … it becomes a terrible addiction that takes over your life."

It wasn't until her 40s that Fonda realized the toll her addiction was taking. "It becomes impossible to have an authentic relationship," she said. "When you're doing this secretly, your day becomes organized around getting food and then eating it, which requires that you're by yourself and that no one knows what you're doing. … And it happens when your life is inauthentic: When what you should be doing and who you should be or who you really are, those things are being betrayed."

"As you get older, the toll that it takes on you, it becomes worse and worse," she said, adding: "It got to a point in my 40s when I just thought, … 'If I keep on like this, I'm going to die." 

Fonda quit cold turkey in an era when eating disorders were not discussed or treated widely. "I didn't realize that they were groups that you could join," Fonda said. "I didn't know anything about that yet, and nobody talked about it. I didn't even know there was a word for it."

"And so I just went cold turkey, and it was really hard," Fonda said. "But the fact is that the more distance you can put between you and the last binge, then the better it is. It becomes easier and easier."

Health care professionals now know a lot more about eating disorders, how to diagnose them and how to overcome them. Here's what you need to know.


What Are Eating Disorders?

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"Eating disorders are serious, complex and potentially life-threatening mental illnesses," according to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration in Australia. "They are characterised by disturbances in behaviours, thoughts and attitudes to food, eating, and body weight or shape. Eating disorders have detrimental impacts upon a person's life and result in serious medical, psychiatric and psychosocial consequences."

They include such specific conditions as binge-eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder and other disorders "where there is some sort of behavioral disturbance," says Dr. Deborah Glasofer, an associate professor of clinical medical psychology in Columbia University's Department of Psychiatry.

Bulimia is characterized by uncontrolled episodes of overeating, called bingeing, followed by purging through vomiting or misuse of laxatives, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. "The binge-purge cycles can happen from many times a day to several times a week," the school says. "Often, people with bulimia keep a normal or above normal body weight. This lets them hide their problem for years. Many people with bulimia don't seek help until they reach the ages of 30 or 50. By this time, their eating behavior is deeply ingrained and harder to change."


Who's at Risk for Bulimia and Eating Disorders?

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Eating disorders typically affect women and girls, starting during the teenage years, Johns Hopkins says. But boys and men may also have them.

As many as 60 percent of teens show behaviors associated with disordered eating, says Jocelyn Lebow, a Mayo Clinic child psychologist who specializes in treating eating disorders. "They're either not eating enough to allow them to grow, to allow them to have energy to do what they need to do, so that is impacting their mood," Lebow says. "That's a problem."

"People with bulimia are more likely to come from families with a history of eating disorders, physical illness, and other mental health problems," Johns Hopkins says. "Other illnesses, such as substance use disorder, anxiety disorders, and mood disorders are common in people with bulimia."


Signs and Symptoms of Bulimia and Eating Disorders


"Although there are recognizable warning signs, what you're really looking for is change," says Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, a psychiatrist at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver. "Change in attitudes or behaviors related to food, size, weight, really about their self-perception."

Emotional and behavioral symptoms include focusing on weight loss, dieting and food control, according to the National Eating Disorders Association

Five signs of an eating disorder include excessive dieting or pickiness about food; excessive exercise; withdrawal from friends, family and activities a person normally enjoys; fasting; and hiding food or eating only when nobody is around, Lebow says.

A person may also display fluctuations in weight, gastrointestinal symptoms, menstrual irregularities, sleep problems, dental problems and immunity issues, the association says.


Treatments for Eating Disorders

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Treatment should help a person make behavioral changes, Glasofer says. If it doesn't, "then it's not hitting the target that it needs to hit to help you recover," she says. 

That includes changing symptoms such as eating less restrictively, improving patterns of eating and reducing purging or overexercise or binge-eating frequency in measurable ways, she says.

"The strongest evidence-based treatment for eating disorders are behaviorally-focused treatments," Glasofer says. "So these include family-based treatment for adolescents with eating disorders, individual cognitive behavioral therapy for bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. And behaviorally based treatments will spend a lot of time really talking about normalizing eating, normalizing weight for people who need to improve their weight to a physically healthy spot."


What You Can Do

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If you are concerned that you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, consult a physician, psychiatrist or the National Eating Disorders Helpline (800-931-2237).

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders also has a list of groups, resources and other services to seek help.

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