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The Link Between Addiction and Eating Disorders

Woman eating salad


By Stephanie Thomas

One challenge – no matter how small – can take up enormous amounts of time, focus and energy.

As the old saying goes, when it rains it pours. And so, in some seasons of life, one challenge follows another. Your toddler gets the flu the same week your new, super-strict boss starts at work and your spouse wrecks the car.

Thankfully, most seasons pass and tough moments lead to better days.

But can you imagine what life might be like if this weren’t the case? If one trouble followed another and then stuck around?

Some folks struggling with an eating disorder or an addiction can. Without the right treatment approach and recovery plan, they may find themselves trading one problem for another, with no end in sight.1

That’s why we’d like to shine a light on this issue today. There is often a connection between addiction and eating disorders, but there are avenues for getting the help you or your loved one need.

Why the Conversation About Addiction and Eating Disorders Matters

When it comes to the seriousness of people experiencing both an eating disorder and an addiction at the same time, the numbers tell the story. First, let’s look at nationwide stats:

  • 9 percent of American adults abuse drugs or alcohol.
  • 3 percent of American adults have an eating disorder.

Now, compare those figures with the percentage of people dealing with both concurrently:

  • 50 percent of American adults who have an eating disorder also struggle with addiction.
  • 35 percent of American adults with an addiction also have an eating disorder.2

And it makes sense, right? We know that drugs provide an artificial high – which may be welcomed by a person who feels quite low about her body – as well as a way to manage or reduce weight.4 And certain drugs may cause a person to eat less while using and to eat more during withdrawal. Both situations could lead to an eating disorder.4

When a treatment plan considers the strong possibility of a dual diagnosis – two conditions being treated together – the patient gets a better shot at recovery.3

Robyn Cruze, the national recovery advocate for Eating Recovery Center, shared her own experience with concurring struggles on a recent episode of Recovery Unscripted. Robyn explains how she conquered an eating disorder after an 18-year battle, only to pick up a substance use disorder soon after.

Over time, she began to notice a trend. Robyn says, “It really hit home that we’ve got this population who get recovery for one illness and then they’re handed another . . . Why aren’t we talking about this?”

She made it her mission to educate both doctors and substance use professionals–as well as the general public–on the ways addiction and eating disorders are linked and how we all can do a better job spotting the connection.1

Robyn Cruze

Want to hear more from Robyn Cruze about the connections between substance use and disordered eating? Listen to her full interview  with the Recovery Unscripted podcast.

Similarities and Difference Between the Two Illnesses

Both eating disorders and substance use disorders represent forms of addicted behavior – where certain actions begin to feel involuntary based on the reward system set up in the brain.

Of course, avoidance and indulgence look different in practical terms. Still, a person who drinks too much does so because his brain tells him that’s the only way to be happy. A person who avoids food does so because her brain tells her that’s the only way to be happy.2

In the powerful book, Women Who Hurt Themselves: A Book of Hope and Understanding, author Dusty Miller lists the key traits found in people who struggle with both eating disorders and addiction, including “the sense of being at war with one’s own body; an inability to self-protect, often evident in a specific kind of fragmentation of the self; and relationships in which the struggle for control overshadows all else.”4

Recovery plans must consider the fact that people working to overcome both an eating disorder and a substance use issue can walk away from both drugs and alcohol but cannot stop eating food. The point may seem obvious, but the difference between these two related – but very unique – approaches to recovery must be taken seriously.2

Treatment Options Available to Help With Eating Disorders and Substance Use Issues

Screening for both illnesses when one is present seems to be the first and perhaps most important step toward lasting recovery. Treatment centers can best offer new coping skills – and help point patients in the direction of the appropriate experts – when they understand the complete picture of a person’s struggle.2

In addition to traditional recovery programs, patients might also consider taking up a new hobby, such as yoga, that has been proven to aid in recovery from eating disorders as well as reduce symptoms of depression.


1 Tjornehoj, David. Starting the Body Conversation with Robyn Cruze. Recovery Unscripted Podcast, July 11, 2018.

2 Ross, Carolyn, MD. When Eating Disorders and Drug Addiction Collide. Psychology Today, November 30, 2015.

3 Eating Disorders Treatment. The Canyon Malibu, Accessed July 28, 2018.

4 Ressler, Adrienne. Insatiable Hungers: Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse. Social Work Today, July 2008.

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