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Is There a Connection Between Eating Disorders and Addiction?

A frustrated woman

When many people think of the stereotypes of addiction and eating disorders, they might picture two different images: an unkempt, ostracized boy and a slender, popular girl. In truth, these two conditions have a lot of commonalities, and each disorder can lead to several severe health problems.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Before examining these connections, let’s first explain how mental health advocates define eating disorders. Generally speaking, the term describes disorders that are characterized by dysfunctional attitudes toward eating and food, persistently negative eating behaviors and an unhealthy focus on body shape or weight.

The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders outlines three distinct types of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa involves trying to minimize one’s weight in an effort to remain thin (the standard is a body-mass index of 17.5 or below). Bulimia nervosa is demonstrated through cycles of binge eating and purging, which may also involve using laxatives and diuretics. Binge eating disorder is binge eating without purging, and it tends to be found in obese individuals.

Similarities Between Eating Disorders and Addiction

The screening criteria for both substance misuse and eating disorders are similar. The criteria for diagnosing someone with an eating or substance use disorder include:

  • Being told by friends or family that they are concerned
  • Cravings, compulsions, and obsessive behavior
  • A diminishing of interests, like hobbies
  • An escalation of occurrences in intensity or frequency
  • An inability to stop, even if there are negative consequences

On a broader level, people experience addiction or eating disorders in response to real or percieved problems with which they are trying to cope. Both conditions often arise in response to stressful or traumatic events, and the road to recovering from them is often littered with relapses.

In addition, scientific research has revealed that there is a substantial genetic component to both substance use disorder and eating disorders. Personality traits, like impulsivity, environmental triggers, peer pressure, family dysfunction and disorder-glorifying websites are all associated with both conditions.

Co-Occurring Disorders Are Common

Given their wide range of similarities, eating disorders and addiction often co-occur. According to an advisory entitled “Clients With Substance Use And Eating Disorders” released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

  • People with a binge eating disorder are 23.3 percent more likely to also have a substance use disorder
  • People with anorexia nervosa are 27 percent more likely to also have a substance use disorder
  • People with bulimia nervosa are 36.8 percent more likely to also have a substance use disorder
  • The number of unique substances used tends to increase along with the severity of an eating disorder
  • Severe binge eating disorder correlates strongly with alcohol misuse
  • Purging is associated with increased use of sleeping pills, amphetamines and other stimulants

Young woman talking with a counselor.

How to Approach This Problem

As with all drug treatment programs, it is essential for people battling a substance use disorder and an eating disorder to embrace a treatment plan that is customized to their specific needs. Otherwise, a person may begin resisting substance use compulsions but engaging in more binge eating to satisfy his or her cravings.

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of service providers in the United States that treat both eating disorders and addiction concurrently. SAMHSA found that just 16 percent of 351 publicly-funded substance use disorder treatment programs also treat co-occurring eating disorders.

If someone you love deals with both an eating disorder and a substance use disorder, make sure to seek out a treatment provider that can address both issues. Also, you should prepare for a recovery journey that is more difficult than it would be if your loved one was diagnosed with only one of these conditions.

That said, your basic approach remains the same as it would if you had a loved one who suffers from addiction: constant vigilance to prevent relapses, strong persistence in encouraging him or her to follow the prescribed treatment program and undying support throughout the recovery process. It is an effective formula for success that has worked for many people across the country.

For more information on addiction treatment, contact Next Generation Village today.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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