The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Addiction

Eating disorders carry similar addictive behaviors as other types of addiction such as drug or gambling addiction. They are characterized by unhealthy patterns of eating caused by obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Eating disorders can affect any age or gender but young women are most commonly affected. 

Eating disorders have diagnostic similarities to drug addiction, being compulsive behaviors that are difficult to stop. Furthermore, because people with eating disorders typically have unhealthy body image and co-occurring disorders such as depression and anxiety, many turn to substance abuse to cope. This can often lead to full blown addiction.

Understanding Common Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa 

Anorexia Nervosa is a serious mental health disorder and potentially life-threatening condition. The disorder is characterized by an unrealistic body image, intense fear of becoming overweight, and emotional challenges. Anorexia Nervosa is the third most common chronic illness among teens and while it can affect both males and females, it is 10 times more common in women. 

Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa include refusal to eat, attempts to lose weight even when body weight is low, and low body mass index. Often people will refer to Anorexia Nervosa simply as Anorexia but this is incorrect. Anorexia means loss of appetite or inability to eat but is not a mental health condition.

Bulimia Nervosa 

People with Bulimia Nervosa commonly will binge eat in an uncontrolled manner, then purge to try to get rid of the calories. Like Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa is a serious mental health disorder and potentially life-threatening condition. People with Bulimia typically live in fear of gaining weight and are preoccupied with body image. They typically perpetuate a cycle of loss of control around eating, with binge eating sessions followed by forcing themselves to exercise or vomit to get rid of the calories they consumed. 

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. It occurs when a person has recurrent episodes of binge eating, described as eating a quantity of food that is much higher than what a normal person would typically eat. In these episodes, patients typically feel a loss of control, eating until they are uncomfortable, and feeling shame and guilt afterwards. Contrary to Bulimia Nervosa, Binge eating disorder is not associated with purging or other unhealthy methods to “get rid” of the calories consumed during the binge. 

Health Risks Associated with Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa Health Risks

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. While this is the gravest of the health conditions associated with Anorexia, other concerns include: 

  • Malnutrition
  • Anemia
  • Muscle wasting
  • Low blood pressure
  • Bone loss/osteoporosis
  • Low blood sugar
  • Heart conditions such as irregular heart rhythms and heart failure
  • Heart, kidney and/or liver failure
  • Fertility challenges
  • Amenorrhea (loss of period in females)
  • Low testosterone (in males)

Bulimia Nervosa Health Risks

  • Dehydration (can lead to major problems such as kidney failure)
  • Heart conditions such as irregular heart rhythms and heart failure
  • Tooth decay and gum disease
  • Amenorrhea (loss of period in females)
  • Digestive issues
  • Fertility challenges

Binge Eating Disorder Health Risks

  • High Cholesterol
  • Type II Diabetes
  • Weight gain/obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease

Furthermore, all three eating disorders carry with them high risk of emotional and mental distress as well as co-occurring disorders such as depression and anxiety. 

Similarities Between Eating Disorders and Drug Addiction

Eating disorders and drug addiction have a lot in common. Both can stem from traumatic or stressful experiences, genetics, and/or personal experiences and traits. In addition, people with eating disorders and/or drug addiction commonly have co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety, ADHD or PTSD. 

Screening for drug addiction and screening for eating disorders have a lot of similarities. Doctors look for: 

  • Cravings, rituals, and obsession around an addictive behavior
  • Giving up other interests and friends to spend more time on an addictive behavior
  • Inability to stop the addictive or destructive behavior despite numerous attempts
  • Escalation in frequency or intensity over time
  • Continued use of substance or behavior despite negative consequences
  • Family members, friends or loved ones express concern about addictive behavior

Both drug addiction and eating disorders carry a high risk of relapse and require treatment and  long-term therapy for best outcomes. 

Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

Eating disorders and substance abuse have a close relationship. As with other psychological disorders, having an eating disorder can increase the risk that a person will attempt to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to ease their symptoms. When self-medicating, the risk of developing dependence or addiction is very high as patients become used to the dulled or altered symptoms. 

Further, some drugs can actually support an eating disorder, such as stimulants like Adderall, meth and cocaine, all of which suppress appetite without feeling negative effects. Other substances, like alcohol and other depressants, help people with eating disorders by relieving the stress and anxiety surrounding food. 

A 2003 study found that people with eating disorders were five times as likely to abuse alcohol or illicit drugs as those without. It was found that 50% of people who had an eating disorder abused drugs and alcohol, compared to 9% of the general population. On the opposite side, those who abused alcohol or illicit drugs were 11 times as likely to have an eating disorder as those who did not use substances. Up to 35% of people who abused or were dependent on drugs and alcohol have had an eating disorder in the past, compared to 3% of the general population. 

Getting Help for Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse or Addiction

When an eating disorder co-occurs with substance abuse, addiction, and/or other mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, it is important to seek comprehensive support. Like other forms of addiction, with the right treatment and commitment, people with eating disorders can overcome them. 

It is important to treat any and all conditions together in order to achieve the best possible outcomes and chance of long-term recovery. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, addiction, or an eating disorder, help is available. At Harmony Recovery Group we treat patients holistically in order to give them the best chance at success. Call us today, we are here to talk. 


Contact us for help today

Ready to start? We’re here for you.

Send us a message