Eating Disorders and Addiction

Eating disorders and addiction often go hand in hand. In fact, eating disorders are commonly seen as conditions that present alongside a substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD). Only with concurrent treatment of both disorders, does a person have a higher chance of lifelong recovery.

SUD can begin before or during an eating disorder and is usually referred to as having a dual diagnosis or a co-occurring mental health condition. Eating disorders can often lead to the development of an alcohol or substance addiction. People use substances as a way to cope with the stresses related to food and begin drinking and using drugs to help suppress their appetite for food. Studies have shown that up to 50% of individuals with an eating disorder also abuse alcohol or illicit substances. The most common substances include alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine and heroin.

A person sitting head down on the floor is in the background of a weight scale representing the relationship between eating disorders and addiction.

Both eating disorders and substance addictions share common risk factors such as family history, brain chemistry, depression, anxiety and social pressures. Alcohol and eating disorders share quite a bit of similarity making it difficult to distinguish between the two. Both are associated with mental health conditions that include signs of anxiety, depression and even trauma-related disorders. Both are unhealthy forms of coping with distress. People turn to food, drugs and alcohol as a way to manage emotionally distressing situations. Both are also associated with risk-taking behaviors. People suffering from bulimia nervosa and alcohol use disorder are associated with impulse-seeking behaviors.

A common characteristic of eating disorder addiction is known colloquially as “drunkorexia.” Drunkorexia refers to a person altering their eating habits to offset any planned intake of alcohol or to increase the speed of the effects of alcohol. It is not an official clinical diagnosis, but it is often seen in college and among young adults.

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People who have eating disorders addiction suppress their appetite by excessively drinking alcohol. This is used as a compensatory tactic to restrict themselves from eating food. It acts as a distraction and coping mechanism to manage their issues with eating. Similarly, the usage of amphetamines among those with eating disorders is commonly associated with dieting and purging behaviors.

Both eating disorders and addiction are mental health conditions that present with parallel symptoms and result in both emotional and physical consequences.

How can these issues be properly addressed? In some cases, addressing the underlying issues of the eating disorder can help shed light on the development of an addiction. 

February 27 to March 5, 2023 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW). The goal of EDAW is to bring awareness and light to the realities of eating disorders. The campaign strives to provide hope, support and resources for individuals and families affected by this mental health condition. It is a condition that when diagnosed with an addiction, can result in a range of complex issues.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders (ED) are complex mental health conditions caused by an unhealthy relationship with eating and food. This can start with an obsession with food and an unhealthy view of body weight and image. It can eventually lead to both psychological and physical damage to the body. 

Other factors that increase risk of the development of eating disorders include family genetics. Having a parent or sibling with an eating disorder increases the likelihood of developing one as well. Certain personality traits such as perfectionism and impulsivity are often linked to eating disorders. And the cultural and social pressures to be skinny can be hugely influential factors. This is especially true through the easy accessibility of social media platforms. ED is considered to be one of the deadliest mental health disorders second to opioid overdoses.

Research has shown that about 28 million people in the U.S. have had an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Although the majority of people who suffer from eating disorders are women, men and other non-gender conforming people also develop eating disorders. However, due to negative stigma, cultural and social expectations, they are much less likely to seek out help for their condition.

What are the different types of eating disorders?

Anorexia nervosa is one of the most commonly known eating disorders and generally develops during adolescence and young adulthood. People with this disorder often view themselves as overweight and constantly trying to control their food intake. Their intense fear of gaining weight and the constant pursuit of thinness results in highly restrictive eating habits and a degrading sense of self-esteem and self-image. Ultimately creating a distorted image of themselves.

Bulimia nervosa develops when a person begins to eat an unusually large amount of food in a very specific period of time. During this food binge, the person loses control over the excessive amount of food intake. The person will then follow the binge by attempting to purge what they have just taken in.

They will often force purge through means such as forced vomiting, fasting, laxatives or excessive exercising. This is to compensate for all the caloric intake and guilt of being unable to control their eating habits. Uncontrollable binging followed by inappropriate purging behaviors are common signs of bulimia nervosa.

Binge eating disorder is prevalent among young adults. It is characterized by eating large amounts of food in very short periods of time. There are no restrictions when it comes to eating and no purging after. The complete lack of control over what is being eaten in such a short amount of time begins to produce feelings of guilt, shame and distress.

Pica is a lesser-known type of eating disorder characterized by eating things that are not considered food or have any nutritional value. Some examples of unusual cravings include ice, dirt, chalk, soap, cotton and even paper.

This condition can be found in people who suffer from intellectual disabilities or people who have conditions that affect daily activities. Examples include people who have schizophrenia or someone on the autism spectrum. This eating disorder can produce a high risk of poisoning, infections, stomach injuries and severe nutritional deficiencies.

Rumination disorder is a newly discovered type of eating disorder in which a person will swallow their food, regurgitate it and either re-swallows or spits it out completely. This type of behavior tends to develop in early childhood and if left untreated, could cause issues with malnutrition.

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is common for people who have disturbed experiences surrounding certain types of foods. This could be a lack of interest in eating, disdain for the smell and taste of certain foods, or avoidance of colors and textures. ARFID goes far beyond picky eating and can lead to nutrient deficiencies, weight loss, poor physical development, and the development of habits that can interfere with social occupations.

All eating disorders can become life-threatening. And in today’s culture, there is a huge focus on body image and diet culture. The news, entertainment and social media platforms all contribute to the perpetuation and obsession with physical body image.

Reach out to Hotel California by the Sea

We specialize in treating addiction and other co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD. Our Admissions specialists are available to walk you through the best options for treating your addiction.

Signs and symptoms you may have an eating disorder:

  1. You are always dieting. Whether it is keto, atkins, paleo, or gluten-free, you are constantly trying new trends to change your body. This can include cycling between different diets or dieting followed by a phase of purging. Oftentimes these people are unaware of the unhealthy lifestyle and are constantly consumed by the idea of controlling their diet.
  2. Only eating clean or pure. In cases like this, you do not consider yourself on a diet. You consider it as eating healthier foods without allowing any room for deviation from cravings of other foods you may want to eat. 
  3. Always exercising. Regular exercise for mood and cardiovascular health can be very important for overall health and well-being. Those who constantly overexert themselves without giving their bodies the needed rest can cause harm to themselves physically and mentally. These people often feel the need to exercise as a way to overcompensate for their dietary intake.
  4. Judgment on the appearance of others. You are constantly comparing yourself to others in terms of how skinny, fat or fit they may be.
  5. Eating plays a major factor and influence on your mood. On the days you feel you had a good eating day, it puts you in a positive mood. There are other days when you feel you lack control over your eating and you feel guilt and shame lowering your self-esteem.
  6. Sometimes you eat less to compensate. There are times when you try to make up for “bad” eating by being overly restrictive, exercising more, or even engaging in purging methods such as vomiting and using laxatives.
  7. You associate your worth in relation to body measurements. When your self-esteem and self-worth are completely dependent on your physical image. You begin to ignore other aspects of your personality and give up on the activities you once loved due to your obsession with the shape of your body.

At Hotel California by the Sea, all of our clients who intake at our programs are screened for alcohol or substance addiction and other co-occurring mental health conditions. We often screen for clients who present with concurring symptoms of eating disorders. Our inpatient and outpatient programs work to treat alcohol and eating disorders simultaneously. Our specialized therapies include CBT, DBT and EMDR therapy to target the root causes of mental health issues. Our other unique programs that include physical health and fitness as well as nutritional counseling are also offered to help clients readjust to their newly sober lives. We believe that concurrent treatment results in a greater chance of long-term recovery.