Why Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse Can Go Hand in Hand

If you or a loved one has struggled with either an eating disorder or substance abuse, you can likely identify easily with the vicious cycles that are characteristic of addictions. While addictions may come in various shapes and forms, essentially, they share many similar features and traits. Whether an addiction is to alcohol, drugs, or food, the addict is drawn to satisfying the object of their dependency, even in the face of detrimental consequences.

Because of their similarities in nature, addictions can often be co-occurring, meaning that an individual can struggle with any combination of two or more substance abuse disorders and mental disorders. A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to Congress estimated that seven to ten million individuals in the United States have a mental disorder as well as an alcohol or drug use disorder1. Numbers such as these reveal the need for comprehensive treatment for individuals struggling with co-occurring disorders, highlighting the need for health professionals to understand and effectively address this commonality.

What Is the Link?

If we explore this complexity further, we must ask the question: What is it that links eating disorders and substance abuse, which can frequently co-exist in a man or woman suffering with addiction? Indeed, these two disorders can too easily be found hand-in-hand, keeping each disease alive far longer than if it was to exist on its own. Perhaps you have been in recovery from a drug addiction, only to find that you are enticed by the comfort of a food binge or the temporary escape from a purging episode. Or vice-versa: Maybe you have learned to manage your eating disorder behaviors, only to find that you are baited by drugs or alcohol. Even if you have not struggled with this personally, it is evident in our society, where public figures and celebrities struggle with addiction and often lose their lives to this complex and ferocious battle with drugs, alcohol, and eating disorders.

Eating disorders and substance abuse are commonly co-occurring because they each represent a means to an end, a temporary escape from something undesirable, such as a traumatic event, a hurtful relationship, or any painful life experience. The function of addiction, whether it involves getting high off an illegal substance or becoming preoccupied with weight, calories, and food, achieves the same purpose. For someone who is facing an agonizing reality, addictions offer an altered existence, a temporary distraction from what may be innately plaguing.

Healing the Wound

As long as those underlying issues exist, a need to avoid them will constantly be sought through the coping mechanism of an addiction. To truly recover from these lethal illnesses, it is not simply enough to "stop the behaviors." This would be similar to thinking that a Band-Aid would suffice to cover a deep wound, when in reality, stitches are needed for healing to take place. As long as the wound is there, relief and distraction will continually be sought, no matter the form of the addiction or disorder.

Recovery is painful and difficult because it forces you to uncover everything that has been hidden by your addiction, but it is the only way to truly experiencing healing, wholeness, and restoration. Eating disorders and substance abuse may seem impossible to break free from, especially when existing simultaneously, but if you are looking for recovery, know that there is hope for you!

Eating Disorder Hope promotes ending eating disordered behavior, pursuing recovery and embracing life. Visit Eating Disorder Hope to find treatment referrals, information and resources for eating disorder recovery.


[1] "Co-Occurring Disorders" Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/co-occurring-disorders.