Eating disorders are like drug or gambling addiction in that they involve unhealthy eating patterns caused by obsessive and compulsive behaviors. They can affect anyone, but young women are most at risk.
Eating disorders and drug addiction are similar in that they both involve compulsive behaviors that are difficult to stop. People with eating disorders often have an unhealthy body image and other mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
This can lead them to turn to substance abuse to cope, which can then develop into full-blown addiction.
Types of Eating Disorders
Adolescents with anorexia nervosa, a severe mental health disorder with the potential to be life-threatening, have a distorted body image, an intense fear of gaining weight, and emotional distress.
It is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, affecting both males and females, but it is 10 times more common in females.
People with anorexia nervosa may refuse to eat, even though they are underweight and have a low body mass index (BMI). They may also try to lose weight even though they are already very thin.
People with anorexia nervosa are often referred to as simply “anorexic,” but this is incorrect. Anorexia simply means loss of appetite or inability to eat, and it is not a mental health condition.
People with bulimia nervosa often binge eat or consume large amounts of food in a short period, feeling out of control.
They then purge or try to get rid of the calories they consume through vomiting, excessive exercise, or laxatives. Just like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa is a severe mental illness that can be fatal.
People with bulimia often have a distorted body image and are terrified of gaining weight. They typically get trapped in a cycle of binge eating followed by purging, trying to regain control over their eating habits.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder (BED) affects more people in the United States than any other eating disorder. People with BED regularly eat large amounts of food in a short period of time, feeling powerless to stop.
During a binge eating episode, people with BED typically eat until they are uncomfortably full and feel guilty and ashamed afterward.
BED is different from bulimia nervosa in that people with BED do not engage in purging or other unhealthy behaviors to compensate for their binge eating.
Clinically, only three eating disorders are recognized, but there are many other common eating habits that are unhealthy.
The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Addiction
Eating disorders and addiction are two distinct diagnoses, but research suggests they often coexist. People with eating disorders may turn to addiction to cope with anxiety and stress, control their weight, or feel better.
Many factors link addiction and eating disorders. People with addiction usually have co-occurring mental health issues like depression and anxiety, which can lead to self-harming behaviors like disordered eating. Similarly, people with eating disorders may develop addictions to cope with their negative self-image and body image.
What are the factors that contribute to addiction and eating disorders?
Many of the same factors that contribute to addiction also contribute to eating disorders, including:
Genetics and Addiction and Eating Disorders
Genetics plays an important role in the development of both addiction and eating disorders. Studies have shown that people with a family history of addiction or eating disorders as addiction are more likely to develop these conditions themselves.
For example, twin studies have shown that the risk of addiction is about 50% heritable, meaning that about half of the risk of developing addiction is due to genetic factors. Similarly, twin studies have shown that the risk of eating disorders is about 40-60% heritable.
Many specific genes have been linked to addiction and eating disorders. For example, some studies have shown that people with certain variations in the dopamine receptor gene are more likely to develop addiction.
Similarly, other studies have shown that people with certain variations in the serotonin receptor gene are more likely to develop eating disorders. Seeking professional support for eating disorders is vital.
However, it is critical to note that genetics is not the only factor that influences the development of addiction and eating disorders. Environmental factors like stress, trauma, and exposure to certain substances can also play a role.
Environmental Factors and Eating Disorders
The glorification of extreme thinness and excessive alcohol consumption in popular culture:
Popular culture often promotes unrealistic and unhealthy standards of beauty, particularly for women.
Low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy are major risk factors for developing an eating disorder. A study published in the journal Eating Disorders found that people with eating disorders are more likely to report low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy.
Additionally, the glamorization of alcohol consumption can make it seem more acceptable and even desirable to drink to excess, which can increase the risk of alcohol abuse and addiction.
Peer pressure and the desire to fit in:
Peer pressure has a powerful influence on teenagers and young adults. If they are surrounded by friends who are using drugs or alcohol or who have unhealthy eating habits, they may be more likely to engage in these behaviors themselves.
Additionally, the desire to fit in can lead to people adopting unhealthy or risky behaviors to be accepted by their peers. According to a 2022 study by the National Eating Disorders Association, an estimated 9 million people in the United States have an eating disorder.
Past emotional and physical trauma and Eating Disorders
Why does trauma increase the risk of addiction and eating disorders? There are a few reasons why. Trauma can lead to changes in brain chemistry and function that make people more susceptible to these disorders.
People may use addiction and eating disorders as coping mechanisms to deal with the pain and emotional distress associated with trauma. Trauma can lead to social isolation and disconnection from others, which can make people more vulnerable to addiction and eating disorders.
Untreated mental illnesses and Eating Disorders
Untreated mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can increase a person’s risk of developing addiction and eating disorders.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) declares that 20% of US adults experience a mental illness each year, and only half receive treatment.
People with untreated mental illnesses are at greater risk of developing addiction and eating disorders. For example, a study published in the journal Addiction found that people with depression can develop substance use disorder as those without depression.
According to a study published in the journal Eating Disorders, people with PTSD have four times increased risk of developing an eating disorder compared to those without PTSD.
There are many reasons why untreated mental illnesses can increase a person’s risk of addiction and eating disorders. One reason is that mental illnesses can lead to negative emotions, such as sadness, hopelessness, and anxiety.
These emotions can be hard to cope with, and some people may turn to drugs, alcohol, or unhealthy eating habits to cope. Additionally, people with mental illnesses may have difficulty making healthy choices and managing stress.
Another reason why untreated mental illnesses can increase a person’s risk of addiction and eating disorders is that they can disrupt the brain’s reward system. This system is responsible for feelings of pleasure and motivation.
When the reward system is disrupted, it cannot be easy to experience pleasure from healthy activities, such as spending time with loved ones or pursuing hobbies. This can lead people to seek out other sources of pleasure, such as drugs, alcohol, or unhealthy foods.
It is important to note that not everyone with a mental illness will develop eating addiction disorders. However, it is crucial to be aware of the increased risk and to seek help if you are struggling with a mental illness.
Treatment can help to manage your symptoms and reduce your risk of developing other problems, such as addiction and eating disorders. Additionally, online eating disorder treatment programs have become increasingly popular for those seeking help in a more accessible and convenient manner
Signs and symptoms of eating disorders
- Extreme weight changes, either gain or loss
- Brittle nails and hair
- Dry or yellow skin
- Tooth decay and sensitivity
- Feeling cold or tired all the time
- Constipation or gastrointestinal distress
- Slowed breathing or pulse
- Chronic sore throat
- Swelling in the jaw and neck area
Behavioral and psychological signs
- Eating very fast or restricting food
- Eating alone
- Feeling ashamed or guilty about eating patterns
- Frequent dieting
- Denial of the seriousness of low body weight
- Intense fear of gaining weight, obsession with thinness, or distorted body image
How do doctors and other healthcare professionals treat eating disorders and addictions?
Doctors and other healthcare professionals treat eating disorders and addictions using a variety of methods, including medication, therapy, and support groups. About 60% of people with eating disorders make a full recovery with treatment, and about 40% to 60% of people with substance use disorders stay sober for at least a year after receiving treatment.
How to help someone with eating and addiction
- Empathize and be gentle. This is important regardless of whether you or a loved one is struggling.
- Listen without judgment. Addiction and eating disorders are complex, so telling someone to “eat more” or “stop drinking” is usually not helpful.
- Continue to interact with them as you would normally. Tell them you love them, invite them to gatherings, and compliment them on their abilities.
Eating disorders and substance use disorders are often linked. Both conditions are complex and have serious health risks. There are signs to help recognize these disorders in yourself or a loved one. Help is available through helplines and treatment programs.