The Link Between Eating Disorders & Addiction

Eating disorders and drug addiction are mental health disorders that can make people act compulsively. In a quest for a perfect figure, weight loss, or to offset drug use, some find themselves with both a substance use disorder and an eating disorder. Dual diagnosis treatment can offer substance abuse and eating disorder therapy.

The general population tries different diets and exercises to reach a desirable body type. While some weight loss plans and diets may be relatively healthy, others have the potential to cause disordered eating.

Eating disorders are pervasive among younger generations in response to diet fads of the early 2000s and the introduction of social media, exacerbating body image issues such as body dysmorphia.

Some people might restrict eating to lose weight quickly; others may engage in binge eating to suppress feelings of depression, loneliness, or stress.

Combining unhealthy eating habits with alcohol or drug use has many negative consequences, including the development of co-occurring mental health disorders and addiction.

The presence of an eating disorder and a substance use disorder (SUD) is treated best with dual diagnosis treatment.

Below we’ll explore the link between these disorders and how they can be managed.

What Is An Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental illness involving dangerous eating behavior that can cause mental and physical harm. If left untreated, disordered eating can be life-threatening.

It’s normal to care about your body image, but people with an eating disorder may have a distorted view of their body and resort to extremes to lose weight.

While 10% of people with eating disorders are males, the prevalence of eating disorders in adult women and adolescent girls is exceptionally high.

The media often pressures women to look “desirable,” so they may resort to unnatural behaviors to achieve such steep demands.

In recent years, social media apps have been breeding grounds for negative self-talk, face-trimming filters, and distorted beauty standards.

These factors combined with other risk factors such as emotionally abusive homes, lack of healthy friendships, mental health issues, and low self-esteem may contribute to the development of an eating disorder.

An eating disorder can also involve overeating. Some people use food to self-medicate feelings of low self-esteem, depression, or anxiety.

Types Of Eating Disorders

The American Psychological Association recognizes three main types of eating disorders.

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa involve obsessions with limiting food intake and body weight. Binge eating disorders may be characterized by impulse eating.

Any of these disorders may also co-occur with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which is a condition in which a person is fixated on perceived negative aspects of their appearance.

According to researchers, 25% to 39% of people with anorexia also have BDD.

Anorexia Nervosa

People with anorexia nervosa have a compulsion with looking and remaining skinny. Even if they are already thin, they may view themselves as overweight.

Some people with anorexia nervosa may partake in excessive exercise, abnormal restriction of food intake, or fasting for days.

Symptoms of anorexia include:

  • thin appearance
  • tiredness
  • dizziness
  • thin hair
  • dehydration
  • insomnia

Bulimia Nervosa

A person with bulimia may experience a loss of control over food intake (often binging privately) followed by a purge to rid their body of the food they just ate.

Purging may be reached through forced vomiting, abusing laxatives, or working out right after eating.

Symptoms of bulimia include:

  • fasting, restricting, or over-exercising
  • avoiding foods or bingeing in one sitting
  • constantly using dietary supplements
  • a preoccupation with weight and body image
  • dry hands from forced vomiting

Binge Eating Disorder

People with binge eating disorders typically have episodes of compulsive eating with high-fat, sugary, or salty foods. A binge eating disorder might result in weight gain or obesity.

Food can become a source of pleasure and comfort or a way to cope with feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and depression.

Symptoms of a binge eating disorder may include:

  • eating alone or in secret
  • eating past being full
  • eating when you’re not hungry
  • feeling ashamed over your eating
  • constantly starting then abandoning diets

How Addiction And Eating Disorders Overlap

To offset the symptoms of an eating disorder, some may try other addictive behaviors, such as illicit drug abuse or alcohol use. Sometimes other anxiety disorders arise.

Drug abuse carries many risk factors, especially when coupled with an eating disorder. Substances may enable someone to continue unhealthy dieting behaviors.

For example, many prescription and illicit drugs suppress appetite and may worsen existing eating disorders (more on that soon).

On the other hand, someone may use an obsession with body image and exercising to excuse substance use. In some cases, binge eating may replace binging on drugs.

Both of these disorders involve compulsion-like behavior, but it manifests in different ways. However, the roots from where these behaviors grow are often the same.

There are many risk factors for drug addiction and eating disorders, including genetics, environment, emotional or physical trauma, or overall emotional health.

Abuse Of Appetite Suppressant Drugs

People have turned to medications or drugs to manage weight. Over-the-counter medicine, prescription medicine, and hard drugs are abused for weight loss.

Below we’ll explore the relationships between different drugs and eating disorders.

Prescription Weight Loss Drugs

Appetite suppressant pills, usually called diet pills, have been around for years.

They work by suppressing how the body absorbs nutrients and reducing appetite. In the past, diet pills were prescribed to housewives feeling the pressure to stay thin and contained small amounts of amphetamine.

Today, these pills are branded by non-FDA-approved companies as “magic pills” used by celebrities to achieve desired figures and weight loss.

Advertisements show before and after photos of pill usage, but they usually don’t discuss the risks involved.

Some risks of using diet pills are:

  • high blood pressure
  • quickened heart rate
  • diarrhea
  • insomnia
  • addiction symptoms similar to opioid use

Stimulant Abuse And Weight Loss

Uppers are often used to invoke alertness and energy, but they may also be abused for their weight loss effects.

Many different stimulant drugs suppress appetite. All of these drugs carry harsh side effects.

Cocaine & The 8-Ball And Orange Juice Diet

The 8-ball and orange juice diet is an unhealthy diet of only orange juice and an 8-ball (3.5 grams) of cocaine. The idea behind this diet is to lose appetite and stay thin.

On its own, cocaine is a stimulant drug that can decrease appetite. Cocaine use attacks fat storage in the body and speeds up bodily processes, leading to unhealthy weight loss.

Ecstacy And Eating Disorders

Known as a “designer drug,” ecstasy is typically taken by younger people before clubbing or raving. However, it can appeal to young men and women concerned about their body image.

Ecstasy has appetite-suppressing tendencies. Furthermore, a study shows that young women who took the drug were more likely to develop eating disorders.

Methamphetamine Use And Disordered Eating

Methamphetamine is a stimulant drug that creates hyperactivity and decreases sleep and appetite.

People often stay up for hours, days, or weeks on a binge, avoiding eating, showering, and other responsibilities.

Methamphetamine use may lead to extreme weight loss, muscle loss, tooth decay, skin lesions, and scratches on a person’s arms and legs.

Hallucinogens: Nausea & Disrupted Hunger Cues

Another class of drugs that causes appetite suppression is hallucinogens. Often thought of as “mind-expanding” substances, these drugs can cause weight loss.

Hallucinogens can induce nausea and vomiting. People who take magic mushrooms or LSD often report having stomach pains. These can lead to people not eating for hours while on the drug.

Signs Of Eating Disorders And Addiction

When people start to obsess over their image, food, or drugs, there may be many psychological, physical, and emotional signs.

As both are mental health disorders that involve compulsions, many symptoms overlap.

People with an eating disorder and addiction might:

  • have a preoccupation with food or substances
  • be unable to stop eating, working out, or taking drugs
  • have cravings for food, drinks, or drugs
  • eat or binge alone
  • avoid friends and family
  • give up interest in anything unrelated to obsessions
  • continue engaging in compulsions despite negative consequences

Dual Diagnosis Treatment For Addiction And Eating Disorders

Co-occurring disorders create many unique challenges during the recovery period. However, dual diagnosis treatment was designed for people with multiple mental illnesses.

Dual diagnosis treatment is used in inpatient addiction treatment programs to help people find long-term recovery from compulsions.

Some of the approaches used in comorbid disorder treatment are:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy: patients develop coping mechanisms and a plan to prevent relapse.
  • group therapy: building relationships with like-minded people, along with hearing fresh perspectives, are some group therapy benefits.

Many people benefit from inpatient or outpatient treatment when treating the symptoms of co-occurring substance misuse and eating disorders.

You or a loved one may need full-time care in a residential program to recover in a safe, substance-free environment. This is often helpful for people who struggle to resist cravings or live in an environment that’s unsupportive of recovery.

Others might benefit from an outpatient recovery program for eating disorders and substance addiction. Here, you can recover alongside other people with a dual diagnosis and return home each day to maintain your typical life responsibilities.

Recover From Substance Abuse And Eating Disorders Today

Our treatment center in Massachusetts can help you or a loved one find recovery.

At Spring Hill Recovery Center, our outpatient programs, detox center, and aftercare services can give you the strength you need to overcome substance abuse and eating disorders.

Reach out to us today to learn more about our treatment programs.

  1. National Eating Disorders Collaboration — Drugs, Alcohol, And Eating Disorders
  2. National Library Of Medicine — Does Anorexia Nervosa Resemble an Addiction?
  3. Substance And Mental Health Services Administration — Clients With Substance Use And Eating Disorders

Written by Spring Hill Recovery Editorial Team

© 2024 Spring Hill Recovery | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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