The Link Between Addiction And Eating Disorders

February 21st, 2018 | By Allaire Kirk | Posted in Blog

In a society that recognizes being thin as the ideal standard of beauty, around 30 million Americans will 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.

Like addiction, an eating disorder often begins as a harmless habit that soon spirals out of control. The two share so many similarities that researchers are beginning to recognize an active link between substance use disorders and eating disorders and how they commonly occur together.

Definition Of Eating Disorders

According to the American Psychological Association, eating disorders are mental illnesses characterized by abnormal eating habits that can threaten a person’s health and life.

While almost everyone worries about their weight to some extent, those suffering from an eating disorder take such concerns to the extreme. When someone is struggling with an eating disorder, their preoccupation with their weight and dietary habits become the most important aspect of their life and overshadows everything else.

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Eating disorders are most common in women and girls. Around 20 million females are currently struggling with an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. Despite being more popular in females, men are not immune to eating disorders. The same organization estimates that 10 million males have an eating disorder.

Eating habits among those with an eating disorder will differ based on the type of disorder they are suffering from.

Types Of Eating Disorders

There are three major types of eating disorders that are recognized by the American Psychological Association including:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Those suffering from anorexia have a distorted body image. They see themselves as overweight although they are dangerously thin. Due to the way they view their body, someone with anorexia will resort to starving themselves and exercising compulsively in order to lose weight.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: When someone has bulimia, they will eat an excessive amount of food during a short period of time. They will then try to desperately rid their body of the food they ate by forcing themselves to vomit, abusing laxatives or exercising too much.
  • Binge Eating Disorder: Similar to bulimia, those with binge eating disorder will frequently experience episodes of out-of-control eating. However, those with binge eating disorder will not try to purge their body of the food they eat. Someone struggling with binge eating will continue to eat even if they are uncomfortably full because of their distorted relationship with food.

Although these are the only three eating disorders clinically recognized, there are several other common eating habits that would be considered abnormal. This includes a growing trend of dieting where a person will chew their food, but spit it out before swallowing. In this case, people believe they are getting all of the taste without the burden of calories.

When someone exhibits strange eating patterns, like the one described above, 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 they are two different diagnoses, research suggests that eating disorders and addiction often go hand in hand. An article published in Social Work Today indicates that almost 50 percent of people struggling with an eating disorder are also abusing drugs or alcohol, and sometimes both. This rate of abuse is five times higher than what is seen in the general population. Additionally, about 35 percent of alcohol or illicit drug users have eating disorders compared with 3 percent of the general population.

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. This creates a vicious cycle where one mental illness feeds of the other and inevitably perpetuate themselves.

What Causes Addiction And Eating Disorders?

Like many other aspects of addiction and eating disorders, the causes of these illnesses often mirror one another and include:

  • Genetics: Research reveals that genetic predisposition is responsible for upwards of 60 percent of addictions and eating disorders. Additionally, there are multiple shared neurotransmitters involved in both eating and substance use disorders.
  • Environment: Popular culture often glorifies things such as extreme thinness and excessive alcohol consumption. These cultural messages can have a significant effect on the development of addiction and eating disorders. Peer pressure and the desire to fit in can also be a powerful environmental trigger, particularly in teenagers and young adults.
  • Emotional And Physical Trauma: Left untreated, past emotional and physical traumas can often significantly influence present substance or food issues. Eating disorders and addiction are typically a symptom of a much deeper problem.
  • Emotional Health: Suffering from any untreated mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety or PTSD, can make a person vulnerable to developing an addiction and/or eating disorder in order to regain some control over their life.

While eating disorders and addictions affect all types of people, these factors can increase a person’s risk factor for developing either condition.

Signs Of Eating Disorders And Addiction

The statistics and research make one thing abundantly clear- eating disorders and substance abuse often coexist and at times, mimic each other. When screening for an eating disorder or an addiction, signs to look for are:

Behavioral Signs:

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

Physical Signs:

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

The number of commonalities between the two diseases can make diagnosing addiction and eating disorders tricky. However, it’s essential to remember that they may be acting together.

Dual-Diagnosis Treatment: Addiction And Eating Disorders

Addiction and eating disorders are both chronic and fatal diseases with high rates of relapse. Due to this, it’s critical that those suffering from both receive a dual-diagnosis and care for both conditions as early as possible.

For the best chance at long-term recovery, addiction and eating disorders must be treated aggressively and together. Treated separately, studies show that only about 25 percent of those receiving treatment for either addiction or an eating disorder will achieve long-term recovery from their conditions. The remaining 75 percent of those suffering from both will fall into a relapse-remit cycle or continue to struggle with their illnesses.

Statistics show that only about 5 percent of women naturally possess a body that fits the ideal picture of American beauty. Unfortunately, about 92 percent of women report feeling unhappy with their shape and resort to dieting to change it.

Alarmingly, these numbers aren’t exactly that shocking- it’s what the United States has come to expect. As society’s concept of the “ideal” body image continues to dictate how men and women see themselves, it’s essential to understand the early signs of an eating disorder and how closely it is related to the disease of addiction.

 

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