The ABC’s of Addiction Recovery: “E” is for Eating Disorders

Today, 9.4% of the population struggles with addiction while roughly 3% struggles with eating disorders. Most people might think that these statistics represent distinct and very separate issues. However, a growing body of evidence indicates a remarkable resemblance between the two health conditions, from similar causes to effects on the brain. Some even argue that eating disorders should be considered a form of addiction.


Eating Disorders

Unlike illicit drugs or alcohol, food is a substance that every single person must consume to stay alive. Bodies need food to function. So, when people make dramatic changes to their eating patterns eating disorders may develop as a result. There are several different types of eating disorders, but the general public considers the following four to be the most life-threatening.


Binge Eating Disorder (Compulsive Overeating)

This disorder is characterized by uncontrollable food consumption. Most people who struggle with this particular disorder tend to eat until they are uncomfortably full. Obesity is a common consequence of this disorder, which may incite further health complications down the road. Some people with this disorder may even turn to purging afterward as a means to dull the discomfort of overeating.



Those who suffer from this eating disorder use purging to limit calorie intake and, consequently, delay any weight gain. In this case, ‘purging’ usually describes ridding the body of recently-ingested food through self-induced vomiting, although some people may use laxatives instead. Some might even use both. What makes bulimia such a dangerous disorder is its long-term effects on the heart. Frequent purging can not only disrupt the rhythm of the heartbeat but can also weaken the heart’s muscles and increase risks of heart failure.


Anorexia Nervosa

This eating disorder is particularly dangerous because it is, essentially, continued self-imposed starvation. Those who struggle with anorexia don’t eat regular meals or follow a regular eating schedule. Instead, they’ll skip meals altogether or only eat perceivably low-calorie snack foods like popcorn or celery. These self-destructive habits can result in infertility, brain damage, heart disease, major organ failure, and even death.


What Causes The Development of Eating Disorders?

Since most people can maintain healthy eating habits without any trouble, many experts are stumped as to why eating disorders develop. However, many theorize that specific risk factors may influence the development of eating disorders. These might include:

  • Genetic factors, like family history of anxiety or eating disorders
  • Psychological factors, like body dysmorphia or perfectionism
  • Environmental factors, like peer pressure
  • Chemical processing in the brain
  • Emotional trauma

Most of these are also risk factors for the development of substance use disorders— addiction.


Similar Patterns of Addiction and Eating Disorders

In addition to the striking similarity in risk factors, several medical science professionals have noticed that the behavioral and psychological patterns seen in people with eating disorders are the very same ones commonly seen in substance abuse or addiction. For example, both eating disorders and substance use disorders tend to develop in response to stressful situations as a misguided way of coping with painful emotions or mental health issues like depression or anxiety. The most notable patterns seen in both types of disorders include:

  • A loss of impulse control
  • Obsession with the preferred substance of abuse
  • (Mis)use of the substance to cope with negative feelings
  • Secrecy about the addictive behavior and substance (mis)use
  • Continuance of the addictive behavior despite the consequences

Several professionals view these and similar patterns of behavior as definitive of addiction. In fact, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has broadened its definition of addiction to include ‘process addictions,’ which refer to indulgences in a specific behavior or set of behaviors that ultimately cause harm. This is mostly because these disorders all stimulate and disrupt the reward center of the brain through drugs, alcohol, food, or fasting.


Diagnostics for Eating Disorders

While there’s no doubt that there is a higher than average rate of substance abuse among people with eating disorders, not every professional agrees that eating disorders are or should be considered a form of addiction. They often cite the co-occurrence of the two conditions (cross-abuse of food and drugs) as proof that they are two separate but similar conditions. Even so, the diagnostic criteria for eating disorders and substance use disorders are so similar that the screening processes for both are more or less the same. The only difference, of course, is the substance in question. When screening for signs of an eating disorder, professionals will look for signs of:

  • Continuing the harmful eating patterns despite the negative consequences
  • Inability to stop the harmful eating patterns after several attempts
  • Obsessive preoccupation with food or calorie consumption
  • Notable escalation in food consumption
  • Concern or worry from loved ones


A Notable Overlap and High Rate of Co-Occurrence

Whether or not eating disorders should be considered a form of addiction, there is still an unusually high rate of co-occurrence between the two conditions. In fact, joint eating disorders and substance use disorders are one of the most common dual diagnoses in active addiction. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University has found in studies that roughly one-half of individuals who struggle with eating disorders also struggle with drug or alcohol abuse. This is especially true for people who have bulimia. Additionally, research has shown that up to 35% of substance abusers also develop a co-occurring eating disorder.


Dual Diagnosis Treatment at TTC Residential Addiction Care

There are several striking similarities between eating disorders and substance use disorders. Both are chronic illnesses that have high rates of co-occurrence, are prone to high relapse rates, and require intensive treatment for successful recovery. At TTC Care, our experienced and compassionate staff can help you pinpoint and address the underlying causes of your substance addiction during your recovery. For more information about our dual diagnosis treatment program, or for a referral to an eating disorder treatment facility, please call us at 844-665-6834.

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