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The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Addiction

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

April 8, 2019

lady touching her stomachWhile many people are looking to shed a few pounds and others like to watch what they eat, there are some people who take these habits to the extreme. When they spiral out of control, the result may be an eating disorder, but unfortunately, the person’s problems often don’t stop there.

Basic Information About Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are mental health conditions that are tied to an unhealthy preoccupation with eating, exercise, and body weight. For many people with these conditions, eating disorders are about control when other parts of their life are unmanageable. An estimated 28.8 million people in the United States will struggle with some type of eating disorder in their lifetime.1

While eating disorders can take several different forms, the most common eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia Nervosa- Limiting caloric intake or using techniques such as vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, and enemas to lose weight. People with anorexia nervosa are often extremely underweight.
  • Bulimia Nervosa- Overeating followed by self-inducing vomiting to decrease caloric intake.
  • Binge-Eating Disorder– Eating in excess because of emotional distress and not being able to control eating.

Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse Comorbidity

While eating disorders alone can be dangerous and life-threatening, they are often tied to other behavioral health conditions. In particular, eating disorders and addiction are frequently connected.

By some estimates, up to half of the people with eating disorders abuse drugs or alcohol, and 35% of people who have abused or been dependent on drugs or alcohol have also had an eating disorder. These rates are 5 and 11 times higher, respectively than in the general population.2

The relationship between eating disorders and substance abuse is complicated and connected for several different reasons. In some instances, a person struggling with an eating disorder will turn to drugs or alcohol to aid in weight loss. Cocaine, for example, is sometimes called the skinny drug because it keeps people active, curbs appetite, and impacts the body’s ability to store fat. As a result, frequent cocaine use can lead to drastic weight loss but also addiction.

In other cases, people will use these substances to cope with the emotional aspects of eating disorders. Because eating disorders are mental health conditions already, and they can also bring about more emotional distress, many people look for ways to cope with these negative feelings. As a result, some people will turn to drug or alcohol for help. With repeated use, an addiction can develop.

Conversely, the relationship between eating disorders and drug addiction may go the other way. Some people may develop an eating disorder after their substance abuse regularly inhibits their appetite and they start to lose weight.

Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse Treatment

Regardless of how an eating disorder and addiction are connected, if someone is struggling, they need help for both of these conditions in order to truly heal.

Co-occurring disorder treatment involves treating the corambid mental health symptoms that are connected to a person’s substance abuse. For someone with an eating disorder, this approach to treatment will focus on treating the eating disorder and drug abuse at the same time.

Part of this process is determining which condition arose first as well as the extent of the relationship between the eating disorder and substance abuse. With a better understanding of this relationship, the next step to treatment will be breaking down this unhealthy connection. Therapy is typically used to help people replace negative behaviors and thought processes, such as overeating or drinking alcohol when in distress, with healthier and more productive habits, such as meditation or breathing exercises.

The ultimate goal of this type of intensive, inpatient addiction treatment is to help people create a new relationship with food as well as learn how to manage emotional distress without drugs or alcohol.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with an eating disorder and addiction, get help. At, we not only have an extensive library of addiction information but may also be able to point you in the right direction for care. Contact us today to learn more.

1. ANAD - General Eating Disorder

2. NEDA - Substance Abuse

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