Eating Disorders and Addiction

It’s very difficult to navigate day-to-day life for someone with an eating disorder. It’s just as difficult for someone who is dealing with a substance abuse problem. The thought that there are people out there suffering from both an eating disorder and a substance abuse problem is very troubling. In fact, that is the case.

After plenty of investigation, there does appear to be a distinct connection between eating disorders and addiction. At the highest level, eating disorders are mental illnesses characterized by abnormal eating habits. Consequently, more than a few people who have eating disorders are turning to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.

In the sections below, we are going to provide further information about this disturbing connection. We will also go into depth about the treatment of co-occurring conditions.

Types Of Eating Disorders

To begin this discussion, we want to define the term eating disorders. These are disorders that involve abnormal relationships with food and eating.

Many times, the person with an eating disorder has been through some kind of trauma, usually as a child. The trauma has disturbed their self-perception to the point of causing them to have a distorted view of how they look. They blame their looks on weight issues that don’t exist and resort to abnormal eating habits to battle their weight.

Here is a list of the three most common types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa: battle weight issues by starving and excessive exercising
  • Bulimia nervosa: starts with eating large amounts of food and then purging (vomiting, abusing laxatives, or excessive exercising)
  • Binge eating disorder: eating excessive amounts of food in a short period

Experts estimate that as many as 28.8 million Americans suffer from one of these disorders. These are only estimates at the end of the day. Many cases go unreported. 

The Link Between Eating Disorders and Addiction

According to a recent article published in Social Work Today, almost 50% of people struggling with an eating disorder abuse substances. That’s a very high percentage considering only 9% of the general population has an eating disorder.

Conversely, almost 35% of people who abuse substances have some type of eating disorder. This number is significantly higher than 3% of the general population that has an alcohol/drug problem. Henceforth, it’s easy to surmise there is a link between eating disorders and addiction.

Eating Disorders and Addiction

What is the link between eating disorders and addiction? Regardless of the base issue, people who are involved with an eating disorder and substance abuse are using one problem to cope with the other one. People with eating disorders are self-medicating, and people who are self-medicating are focusing on abnormal eating habits. To be very clear, this creates a troubling cycle where one illness is exacerbating the other.

In the medical and addiction treatment communities, this is called a co-occurring disorder or condition. It’s also referred to as a dual diagnosis or comorbidity. Whatever it’s called, it’s a serious issue for millions of Americans. 

What Substances Do People With Eating Disorders Prefer?

While it’s possible for someone with an eating disorder to use any kind of drug to help them cope, there are a few substances that tend to be more popular than others. Leading the way is alcohol, which should come as no surprise. 

Further, experts estimate alcohol abuse by eating disorder stands as follows: anorexia (24.7%), bulimia (33%), and binge eating (21.4%). Next, illicit drugs are being abused by eating disorder as follows: anorexia (17.7%), bulimia (26%), and binge eating (19.4%). Finally, marijuana is also very popular, though some people use it for medicinal purposes.

It’s worth noting that the people who have eating disorders and addiction problems tend to hide the substance abuse better than people without eating disorders. This is due in large part because the symptoms of both disorders are similar. 

These similar symptoms include:

  • Ongoing problems in personal relationships
  • Obsessive behavior
  • Strict rituals built around both disorders
  • Problems handling responsibilities at school, home, or work
  • Inability to stop behaviors despite negative consequences

Dual Diagnosis Treatment: Treating an Eating Disorder and Substance Abuse

As we stated earlier, the existence of an eating disorder and substance abuse could constitute the presence of a co-occurring disorder. However, someone can have problems in both areas without having a co-occurring disorder. In order for co-occurring disorders to exist, there has to be some direct causation between the two.

Dual Diagnosis

The process for treating co-occurring conditions is called “dual diagnosis treatment.” While a client is in rehab, they need to get treatment for both disorders at the same time. Failure to do this opens the door to the untreated disorder interfering with any progress made on the other disorder.

The main challenge that top rehab facilities like North Jersey Recovery Center face are trying to administer dual diagnosis treatment simultaneously. To do so properly, a facility needs at least one mental health certified therapist on staff. Hopefully, that individual is also certified to treat addictions. 

If that’s the case, it makes the dual diagnosis treatment process a lot easier. However, the process gets very complicated if such a therapist is not on staff. That would result in the rehab facility having to outsource the mental health portion of treatment.

The Evolution of Eating Disorders and Addiction

Before starting the dual diagnosis treatment process, it helps for the applicable therapist to have an understanding of the evolution of each client’s co-occurring conditions. To that end, here are four general causes of an eating disorder and substance abuse problem:

  • Genetics: heredity dictates that some people are more susceptible than others to eating disorders and addiction
  • Environment: societal expectations, peer pressure, and desire to fit into social groups
  • Emotional and physical trauma: physical and sexual abuse, family tragedies, and involvement in a natural disaster or accident
  • Emotional health: PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders

With a general idea about the evolution of a client’s eating disorder and substance abuse problem, therapists can go to work on the details. Devoid of this information, treatment will likely fail. Patients must be upfront and honest about their history and feelings for lasting recovery. 

The Full Addiction Treatment Process

At our North Jersey Recovery Center, Fair Lawn, NJ, we do treat clients with an eating disorder and substance abuse problem. However, we specialize mainly in treating substance abuse problems. To describe what we do here, we are going to break it down into five categories as follows:

  • Medical detox
  • Inpatient treatment
  • Outpatient treatment
  • Therapy (individual psychotherapy, group, and family)
  • Holistic or alternative treatment

Medical Detox

Before a client can realistically participate in therapy, they need to go through withdrawal. Their body needs an opportunity to rid itself of any cravings that might exist. Given the potential danger of going through withdrawal after extended periods of substance abuse, a lot of clients need the protection of a medical detox program. 

Medical professionals have designed these programs to ensure clients are safe and secure as their bodies detox. Should any client show signs of significant distress during the process, a medical professional always has the option to step in and provide help. Help might include prescription medication. After successfully completing a detox program, clients should be able to focus on therapy.

Inpatient Treatment

When a client’s addiction involves long-term abuse of alcohol, heroin, fentanyl, or meth, inpatient treatment is almost always the right call.

Inpatient Treatment for eating disorders

The inpatient treatment process demands that each client resides in the rehab facility 24/7 until there is consensus they are ready to go. During their time in the facility, they will spend time in individual therapy, attending special meetings, and participating in groups. During downtime, they are usually free to interact with other clients, eat meals, and enjoy recreational activities.

Outpatient Treatment

When a client won’t or can’t commit to inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment becomes the right call. While still living at home, outpatient clients have scheduled appointments they must keep to stay in good standing. The amount of time they have to spend in the rehab facility depends on the type of outpatient treatment program they need. The three options include:

As part of outpatient treatment, clients spend most of their time in individual therapy with an occasional group therapy session thrown in for good measure. However, this depends upon the personalized plan. 

Therapy (Individual Psychotherapy, Group, and Family)

With therapy as the cornerstone of treatment, clients participate in the programs that administrators prescribe. Most of the time a client spends in therapy is focused on individual therapy. While working with a therapist, clients get the opportunity to learn the truth about their addictions. Learning the truth paves the way for them to develop better coping skills. With better coping skills, clients have a line of defense against future relapses.

Group therapy sessions are also important during the addiction treatment process. They give clients an opportunity to listen to other stories and develop kinships with people with which they have things in common.

Finally, family therapy also has a place in the addiction treatment process. These types of programs give family members an opportunity to mend fences and gain a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding their loved one’s addiction.

Holistic or Alternative Treatment

In recent years, the addiction treatment community has come to realize they need to include more modern treatment options. With that in mind, more rehab facilities are offering holistic treatment programs like art and music therapy, yoga, meditation, recreational therapy, equine therapy, and acupuncture. As far as other alternative treatment options, natural recovery and participation in 12-step programs come to mind. 

North Jersey Recovery Center Breaks the Bonds of Addiction and Eating Disorders

An eating disorder can be just as deadly as any other disease. Addiction only makes the problem more complicated. Without the right help, recovery is close to impossible. If you believe you are suffering from an eating disorder and substance abuse problem, now is the time to get help. We can provide the help you need. When you are ready, contact us.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Laura Riley

Medical Reviewer

Laura comes to NJRC with 23 years of vast clinical experience in hospital, residential, outpatient, and community outreach settings where she has worked, supervised clinical teams, and volunteered. She has provided substance abuse and mental health counseling, clinical coordination, and advocacy to individuals, families and groups, and specializes in co-occurring disorders for both adults and adolescents.