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Are Eating Disorders Addictions?

Approximately 8 million Americans have an eating disorder, and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder. It's estimated that about 35% of people with substance use disorders also have eating disorders- a rate that's 11x higher than the general population. With such a clear overlap between eating disorders and drug abuse, it's worth asking, are eating disorders another form of addiction?

Similarities Between Eating Disorders and Addictive Behaviors

People with eating disorders have persistent disturbances around food and eating. Someone with anorexia nervosa fears gaining weight, resulting in them restricting food. Those with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder engage in cycles of binge eating and/or compensatory behaviors, including self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, and fasting.

It's fairly common for people with eating disorders to move from the criteria of one eating disorder to another over the lifespan. Eating disorders can provide an important sense of control and security, and underlying trauma is one of the key risk factors for issues with food and substance abuse concerns.

Some of the main similarities between eating disorders and addiction include:

  • feeling a loss of control: people with both conditions experience a sense of 'losing control' over their substance of choice, whether it's food, exercise, or a drug.

  • impact on daily life: symptoms of both conditions can be time-consuming, disruptive, and shameful. This can disrupt your daily routine and significantly affect the quality of your relationships.

  • denial and deceit: eating disorders and addiction both have themes of denying behaviors or lying about them. This is usually due to the intense shame associated with each condition.

  • co-occurring mental health issues: anxiety disorders and mood disorders are both seen in eating disorders and substance use. People may also be prone to certain personality traits that increase their likelihood of engaging in compulsive behavior in the first place.

  • low self-esteem or poor sense of self: most people with addiction resonate with a deep sense of self-loathing. Unfortunately, this distorted concept of self often triggers the very habits you wish you could stop engaging in.

  • options for both harm reduction and abstinence: Depending on how you pursue recovery, you may embrace an abstinence plan (avoiding certain substances altogether) or a harm reduction option where you practice moderation.

Is Food Addiction Real?

Although it isn't classified among addictive disorders, many people identify with having symptoms of a food addiction. From this framework, food addiction takes on the form of other behavioral or process addictions, where symptoms include:

  • preoccupation with eating

  • eating more food than desired in one setting (i.e. binge eating)

  • persistent desire or unsuccessful attempts to control eating habits

  • experiencing intense urges or cravings for certain foods (generally 'highly palatable foods')

  • continued struggles with food despite interpersonal or social problems

  • continued struggles with food despite physical or psychological impairments

  • a psychological sense of withdrawal when stopping or restricting eating certain foods

Unlike drug addiction, negative consequences may not be so immediate. Substance abuse, particularly in the fentanyl epidemic, can be inherently life-threatening. While people with eating disorders experience many health risks, such issues may take several years to emerge.

Overexposure to highly processed foods may be driving food addiction. It's well-known that food manufacturing companies seek to make their products as enticing as possible. By design, due to dopamine spikes associated with certain foods, people feel wired to want to eat more and more.

Understanding Cross-Addictive Behavior

Cross addiction is a colloquial term used to describe when someone in recovery from one addiction (i.e. a substance use disorder) develops a new addiction to another behavior. This is commonly seen among various mental health conditions. For example, someone may stop drinking alcohol, but they develop an intense exercise addiction where they work out for hours and hours each day. Or someone might binge eat but then start abusing stimulants to suppress appetite and induce weight loss.

This is why comprehensive mental health treatment is crucial. Long-term recovery from any addiction requires learning how to manage various emotions without engaging in compulsive behaviors. It also means learning how to recognize early warning signs of relapse and/or taking care of other mental health symptoms, including anxiety, depression, unresolved trauma, and more.

People with histories of addiction may always be at a higher risk for developing another addiction, and that's why it's important to find treatment that truly emphasizes focusing on the co-morbidity between various mental health concerns.

Treating Co-Occurring Eating Disorders and Substance Use

People with addictive behavior tend to rely on anything that feels good to temporarily provide relief and avoid pain. This may be the simplest definition of addiction, but it speaks to the persistent nature of these devastating illnesses.

At Resurface Group, we focus on the intersection between all mental health conditions, including mood disorders, thought disorders, trauma, neurodivergence, and substance use. We treat individuals, couples, and families and offer a variety of clinical services tailored to your specific needs.

Resurface Connect, our virtual IOP, allows you to receive treatment from the convenience of your own home. We're in-network with most insurance plans- verify your insurance with our team today!

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