In a society that recognizes being thin as the ideal standard of beauty, many Americans suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life. The prevalence of eating disorders has made them the most deadly mental illness in the United States. Many people who struggle with an eating disorder may also struggle with addiction. Some eating disorders, like binge eating, share behavioral patterns with addiction. Others involve restricting calories, which may include abusing substances like stimulants. By recognizing the connection between eating disorders and addiction, individuals can identify a problem within themselves and get the help they need.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are mental health disorders characterized by abnormal eating habits that can threaten a person’s health and life. While many people may worry about their weight at some point in their life, someone with an eating disorder will take their concerns to the extreme. When a person struggles with an eating disorder, their preoccupation with weight and food becomes the most important aspect of their life.

There are three major types of eating disorders:

  1. Anorexia Nervosa: Those suffering from anorexia have a distorted body image. They see themselves as overweight, even when they are dangerously thin. Due to the way they view their body, someone with anorexia will starve themselves and may exercise compulsively to lose weight.
  2. Bulimia Nervosa: When someone struggles with bulimia, they will eat excessive amounts of food during a short period. They will then try to rid their body of the food either through purging or abusing laxatives.
  3. Binge Eating Disorder: Like bulimia, those with binge eating disorders will experience episodes of out-of-control eating. However, people with binge eating disorders do not rid their bodies of food. When a person has a binge eating disorder, they will continue to eat even when they are uncomfortably full due to a distorted relationship with food.

When someone exhibits strange eating patterns but does not meet the criteria for anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, they are placed in the category of “eating disorder not otherwise specified.”

The Link Between Addiction and Eating Disorders

Although eating disorders and addiction are two different diagnoses, they often go hand-in-hand. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, substance use disorder co-occurs in 27% of anorexia patients, 36.8% of bulimia patients, and 23.3% of binge eating disorder patients. In many cases, people who suffer from both an eating disorder and an addiction often use one to cope with the other. For example, someone may use highly restrictive eating habits to feel more in control of their life when struggling with an addiction or vice versa. Someone with anorexia may also abuse stimulants to help them further lose weight. When one mental health disorder feeds off another, it creates a vicious cycle.

Signs of Co-Occurring Addiction and Eating Disorders

Eating disorders and substance abuse often coexist and, at times, mimic one another. With co-occurring addiction and eating disorder, behavioral signs to look out for include:

  • Inability to stop destructive behavior even after multiple attempts
  • Obsessive preoccupation with food or substances
  • Intense cravings and strict rituals around dieting or drug and alcohol use
  • Isolating to hide eating patterns or substance use
  • Giving up other interests to focus on harmful behaviors
  • Continued use of substances or unusual eating habits despite negative consequences

Physical signs of a co-occurring addiction and eating disorder include:

  • Calluses on knuckles
  • Sunken cheekbones
  • Blotchy or scabby skin
  • Decaying teeth
  • Sunken eyes
  • Severe weight loss

The number of common signs between the two diseases can make diagnosing addiction and eating disorders challenging. However, it is essential to remember that they may be acting together.

Treating Addiction and Eating Disorders

Addiction and eating disorders are both chronic and fatal diseases with high rates of relapse. Due to this, those suffering from both should receive dual-diagnosis care for both conditions as early as possible. For the best chance at long-term recovery, addiction and eating disorders must be treated together. When the two disorders are treated separately, the likelihood of relapse increases. For example, if an individual is treated only for substance use and not their anorexia, they may continue to engage in destructive eating patterns and eventually return to substance use to help further their weight loss once again.

When looking for treatment for addiction and an eating disorder, an individual may want to consider:

  • Finding an eating disorder specialist that can also address substance abuse
  • Researching levels of care and treatment providers that fit specific needs
  • Finding a treatment facility that can also provide detox if needed

Eating disorders are highly prevalent in the United States. It is also common for people with eating disorders to also struggle with addiction. Co-occurring addiction and eating disorders can be challenging to spot, as both disorders have similar signs and symptoms. However, the two may be acting together. Treating both disorders simultaneously is crucial for long-term recovery. If you believe you are struggling with an eating disorder and addiction, Hired Power is here to help. Our team can support you in identifying and working with the appropriate treatment center for your specific needs. Our goal is to help clients and their families navigate the first years of recovery and beyond to build a strong foundation for lasting sobriety. Hired Power’s Personal Recovery Assistants encourage and motivate clients to become active participants in their own lives as they walk the path of recovery. For more information on our services and how we can help you, call Hired Power today at (800) 910-9299.