Eating Disorders & Addiction
February 12, 2020 , Agape Treatment Center
An eating disorder is a broad term for a variety of conditions that impact individuals who eat far too little or way too much. Overall, eating disorders are characterized by unhealthy or dangerous relationships with food. Individuals who suffer from eating disorders may restrict how much they eat, what they eat, and when they eat. Others struggle to control the amount of food they consume. These illnesses cover a range of eating conditions – some more severe than others.
Eating disorders are dangerous and potentially fatal if left untreated. In fact, eating disorders have a higher fatality rate than any other mental health condition. Although women are more likely to suffer from an eating disorder than men, there are still plenty of men who experience disordered eating. Unfortunately, eating disorders are inextricably linked to drug and alcohol addiction. Let’s look at how eating disorders develop, the most common eating disorders, and how to identify disordered eating patterns.
How Eating Disorders Develop
Eating disorders may develop for a variety of reasons. Some causes of eating disorders include genetics, biological factors, and mental and emotional health. For example, professionals hypothesize that some people have specific genes that make them susceptible to developing an eating disorder. In addition, an individual’s biological makeup plays a role in eating disorder development. However, mental and emotional health is often at the root of disordered eating. People who have low-self-esteem, identify as perfectionists, display impulsive behaviors, or are engaged in unhealthy relationships are at an increased risk for disordered eating. The Mayo Clinic explains that family history, mental health conditions, extreme dieting, and stress all increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.
Furthermore, recent evidence shows that pop culture and social media promote an ideal body type and distorted expectations of beauty that may lead to disordered eating. These are unrealistic expectations that are not attainable for everybody type. In fact, many of the images seen on social media and in pop culture are altered and photoshopped. However, it still influences young people and their body expectations. One study found that 69% of elementary school girls who read magazines claim that the pictures they see influence their concept of beauty and body shape. 47% of these girls said that the images they see make them want to lose weight.
For more insight on the prevalence and development of eating disorders, consider the following statistics:
● Eating disorders affect at least 30 million people in the U.S. – 10 million of whom are men.
● A person dies due to an eating disorder every 62 minutes.
● Nearly 10% of bulimia sufferers and binge eating disorder sufferers also suffer from a substance use disorder.
● 33-50% of people with anorexia also suffer from depression and other mental health conditions.
Types of Eating Disorders
There are 6 main types of eating disorders that people suffer from. Each is characterized by different behaviors and eating patterns. However, all eating disorders are dangerous and potentially fatal.
Anorexia nervosa is commonly referred to as anorexia and is one of the most well-known eating disorders. Like most other disordered eating habits, anorexia usually develops during adolescence or young adulthood and affects substantially more women than men. People who suffer from it tend to have a distorted perception of their body, or body dysmorphia, where they see themselves as overweight. People who suffer from anorexia may be severely underweight.
Anorexia nervosa usually appears in tandem with obsessive-compulsive symptoms, such as constant preoccupation with controlling food intake, weighing oneself, working out excessively, and maintaining extremely restrictive eating patterns. These individuals usually have a hard time eating in public. In addition, individuals with anorexia restrict their calories to dangerously low levels and avoid eating certain foods – if they eat anything at all. However, some people suffer from binge eating and purging, a variety of anorexia where people vomit or take laxatives after eating in order to avoid weight gain. Sadly, this disorder is terribly damaging to the body, as individuals are susceptible to infertility, loss of bone mass, thinning hair and nails, and even organ failure and death.
Like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa develops in more women than men during adolescence and early adulthood. People who suffer from bulimia typically eat excessively large quantities of food during a short period of time. During these binges, people report feeling as though they cannot stop eating and are unable to control how much they eat. These binge eating episodes continue until the individual becomes so painfully full that they cannot physically eat any more food. Binge eating episodes may consist of any type of food but are most common while eating unhealthy foods that the person would typically avoid.
After a binge, people with bulimia purge, or vomit, in order to compensate for the number of calories they consumed as well as relieve stomach pain or discomfort. In addition to vomiting, people with bulimia may take laxatives, diuretics, and enemas. Furthermore, they may participate in fasts and intense, obsessive exercise. Although some symptoms of bulimia are like those of anorexia, people who suffer from bulimia usually maintain a normal weight instead of becoming underweight. In progressive cases, bulimia may lead to a dangerous imbalance of electrolytes in the body, ultimately leading to a heart attack or stroke.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder is another well-known eating disorder as it is one of the most common in the United States. It usually develops during the teen or early adult years; however, it can also develop later in life. People who experience binge-eating disorder display similar symptoms to bulimia and the binge eating variety of anorexia nervosa.
Unlike the two previous eating disorders discussed, people who binge eat don’t restrict calories, purge their food, or engage in excessive exercise. Instead, individuals eat a lot of food in a short period of time and experience an inability to control their binges. It is very common for people to engage in these binges in secret, as they don’t want others to see their dangerous eating habits. People who suffer from binge eating disorder may eat even when they aren’t hungry and feel shame, guilt, and disgust when reflecting on their binges. Binge eating disorder is linked to obesity, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, making it extremely dangerous and potentially fatal. Furthermore, it often leads to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.
Pica is characterized by eating things that are not food – such as ice, chalk, paper, soap, soil, and other materials. While it is possible to develop pica during adolescence, this eating disorder is usually observed in pregnant women, children, and people with mental disabilities. Due to the nature of pica, individuals who suffer from it are at an increased risk of gastrointestinal injury, nutrition deficiencies, internal infections, and poisoning.
With pica, it is important to note that the severity of the disorder depends largely on which substance a person eats compulsively. Similarly, it is not considered pica if the substance is considered a normal and acceptable aspect of the person’s religious or cultural beliefs. 
Rumination disorder is a newer recognized pattern of disordered eating. People who suffer from rumination disorder regurgitate food they have already swallowed, re-chew the food, and then swallow it again or spit it out. While this may sound like reflux, it is different because rumination disorder is a voluntary action. The disorder can develop during any period of life; however, it is unique because it may occur in infants between 3-12 months old.
Adults who suffer from rumination disorder usually restrict what food and how much food they eat in public, leading to weight loss and malnutrition. Infants, on the other hand, are at serious risk if they experience rumination disorder. After all, it can lead to extreme weight loss and severe malnutrition – something that is fatal if left untreated at an early age. Fortunately, individuals who suffer from rumination disorder can resolve it through therapy.
Avoidant/restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) was previously known as feeding disorders of infancy and early childhood. In the past, it was used only to diagnose children under the age of 7. However, the disorder often persists into adulthood and is common among both men and women.
People with ARFID typically lack interest in eating certain foods based on smell, texture, color, taste, or temperature. ARFID is far more than picky eaters. Instead, these eating patterns surpass normal picky eating behaviors. The condition may become so severe that it leads to food restriction or avoidance, resulting in insufficient nutrient and calorie intake. As a result, ARFID often causes severe nutrient deficiencies, weight loss, slowed development, and dependence on feeding tubes or supplements. Consequently, ARFID interferes with social functioning and eating in public. 
Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders
When the body is deprived of nutrients and appropriate calorie intake, it causes serious harm to the body and mind. Moreover, some eating disorders can lead to poisoning, serious health problems, and death. However, eating disorders are completely treatable with therapy and a positive support system. It’s crucial to identify and treat disordered eating in its early stages before it progresses into more serious eating patterns. After all, chances of recovery increase the earlier an eating disorder is treated. Signs of disordered eating vary depending on which eating pattern a person suffers from, but some common signs and symptoms of eating disorders include:
Symptoms of disordered eating:
● Stomach pain
● Changes in weight
● Mood swings
● Hair loss
● Brittle nails
● Difficulty concentrating
● Sleep problems
● Muscle weakness
● Impaired immune function
Signs of disordered eating patterns:
● Going to the bathroom after each meal
● Preoccupation with weight, calories, food, and dieting
● Hiding/stockpiling food
● Eating in secret/appearing uncomfortable eating in public
● Engaging in ritualistic eating (ex. Only eating particular foods or excessive chewing)
● Eating small portions or skipping meals
● Withdrawal from family and friends
● Taking medications or drugs to curb appetite or support weight loss
● Obsession with body size, shape, and image
Being familiar with the signs and symptoms of disordered eating is important. It can help catch an eating disorder in its early stages, enabling individuals to get the help they need before it is too late.
Eating Disorders and Addiction
There are many biological and behavioral similarities between eating disorders and addiction, particularly related to the obsessive-compulsive nature of each disorder. Individuals who suffer from eating disorders often turn to drugs or alcohol to promote weight loss, replace food, or decrease appetite. For example, stimulants like Adderall or methamphetamine are known to reduce appetite, which can aid in calorie restriction and weight loss.
Researchers have also observed that a common set of personality traits lead individuals to a wide range of behaviors that are common among people who suffer from both addiction and disordered eating. Consider depression or anxiety, for instance. These conditions lead to low-self-esteem and other issues that people may try to solve on their own through means of self-medication or food restriction. Lastly, both conditions revolve around repeated behaviors that reinforce a specific coping pattern – whether it is coping with one’s body image or emotions – that can ultimately lead to the development of co-occurring addiction and disordered eating. Overall, approximately 10% of people with an eating disorder also develop a drug or alcohol use disorder. Sadly, behaviors of both conditions usually continue until serious health or social problems arise, ultimately leading individuals to get treatment for addiction and eating disorders.
Treatment for Eating Disorders and Addiction
Without treatment, eating disorders may become chronic. In most cases, recovering from an eating disorder requires long-term treatment, a support group, and ongoing counseling. Similarly, addiction is a chronic disease that also requires help from a professional treatment center. After all, there is no “cure” or “fix” for disordered eating or addiction.
In extreme cases, some patients may need medical detox or hospitalization to ensure their physical and mental stability before beginning treatment. Once a person is stable, he or she can begin psychotherapy and psychological counseling. Therapy and ongoing care provide individuals with the tools needed for mental and emotional healing. Eating disorders are difficult to overcome, but with the right treatment from a trusted facility, people can achieve recovery and optimal health.
If you or a loved one is suffering from co-occurring addiction and an eating disorder, reach out to Agape Treatment Center today. Your first step towards healing, recovery, and self-love is just a phone call away.
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