The Link Between Eating Disorders and Addiction

February is National Eating Disorder Awareness Month and Cumberland Heights is dedicated to bringing awareness to eating disorders and educating those who may struggle with them in addition to drug and alcohol addiction.

Did you know that eating disorders carry similar addictive behaviors as drug and alcohol addiction? Eating disorders are characterized by unhealthy patterns of eating caused by obsessive and compulsive behaviors, and have diagnostic similarities to drug addiction, as they are both compulsive behaviors that are difficult to stop. Additionally, many people with eating disorders have an unhealthy body image and co-occurring disorders such as depression and anxiety, which in turn lead to substance abuse in some in order to cope.

Let’s break down what eating disorders are, what similarities they carry to addiction, and how they can be treated.



Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by a distorted body image and an intense fear of gaining weight, leading individuals to severely restrict their food intake. Those with anorexia often perceive themselves as overweight, even when they are significantly underweight. This disorder can lead to dangerous physical complications such as malnutrition, organ damage, and disruptions in heart rhythm. Symptoms include refusal to eat, attempts to lose weight even when body weight is already low, and low body mass index.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa involves cycles of binge eating followed by behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, or excessive exercise. Unlike anorexia, individuals with bulimia often maintain a relatively normal weight, but may suffer from fluctuations due to binge-purge cycles. This disorder can cause electrolyte imbalances, gastrointestinal problems, and dental issues. Individuals with bulimia are typically preoccupied with body image, which can perpetuate a cycle of loss of control around eating. This leads to binge eating sessions followed by intense exercise or vomiting to rid the body of the calories consumed.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder involves recurrent episodes of consuming large amounts of food in a short period of time, often accompanied by feeling a loss of control. Unlike bulimia, there is no regular use of compensatory behaviors to counteract binge eating episodes (such as exercise or purging) which leads to weight gain and obesity in many cases. Binge Eating Disorder often leads to emotional distress, shame, and guilt surrounding eating habits, and can increase the risk of various health problems, such as cardiovascular issues and Type 2 diabetes.

Orthorexia Nervosa

Orthorexia Nervosa is characterized by an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy while eliminating those deemed unhealthy or impure. Individuals with orthorexia may become fixated on the quality and purity of their diet to the extent that it interferes with their daily functioning and social interactions. Although not officially recognized as a clinical diagnosis, orthorexia can lead to malnutrition, social isolation, and psychological distress similar to other eating disorders.



Now that you’ve learned what eating disorders are and what behaviors characterize each one, let’s dive into a few common myths about the link between eating disorders and addiction.

Myth #1: Substance abuse causes eating disorders, or vice versa.

While there can be overlap and co-occurrence of eating disorders and substance abuse, one does not directly cause the other. Both conditions are complex and can be influenced by a variety of factors such as genetics, environmental stressors, trauma, and psychological vulnerabilities. It is essential to address each condition separately and tailor treatment approaches accordingly rather than assuming a causal relationship between them.

Myth #2: Treating one disorder will automatically resolve the other.

Although there may be interconnectedness between eating disorders and substance abuse, treating one condition does not guarantee improvement or resolution of the other. Each disorder requires its own specialized treatment plan, addressing the unique underlying factors and coping mechanisms associated with that specific condition. Integrated treatment approaches that consider both disorders simultaneously tend to be most effective in promoting lasting recovery.

Myth #3: Individuals with eating disorders or substance abuse lack willpower or moral character.

Both eating disorders and substance abuse are complex mental health conditions with biological, psychological, and environmental components. They are not simply a result of weakness or poor moral character. These disorders involve dysregulated brain chemistry, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and often co-occurring mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. Blaming individuals for their struggles only perpetuates stigma and may hinder their ability to seek help and recover.

Myth #4: Recovery from eating disorders or substance abuse is impossible.

Recovery is a challenging but achievable journey for individuals struggling with eating disorders or substance abuse. With appropriate treatment, support, and dedication, many people are able to overcome these disorders and lead fulfilling lives. It’s important to recognize that recovery is a process that looks different for everyone and may involve setbacks along the way. Providing ongoing encouragement, understanding, and access to resources can significantly enhance the likelihood of successful recovery.



Eating disorders and drug addiction surprisingly have a lot in common. Both can stem from traumatic or stressful experiences, genetics, and/or personal experiences and traits. In addition, people with eating disorders and/or drug addiction common have co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, or PTSD.

Screening for drug addiction and screening for eating disorders have a lot of similarities. Doctors look for:

  • Cravings, rituals, and obsession around an addictive behavior.
  • Giving up other interests and friends to spend more time on an addictive behavior.
  • Inability to stop addictive or destructive behavior despite numerous attempts.
  • Escalation in frequency or intensity over time.
  • Continued use of substance or behavior despite negative consequences.
  • Expressed concern about addictive behavior from family members, friends, or loved ones.

Additionally, both drug addiction and eating disorders carry a high risk of relapse and require treatment and long-term therapy for best outcomes.



Like many other aspects of addiction and eating disorders, the causes of these issues often mirror one another and include the following:

  • Genetics: Your biological makeup can play a role in both addictions and eating disorders, as certain mental health issues may be passed down from parents to their child.
  • Environmental: Popular culture often glorified extreme thinness and excessive alcohol consumption. These cultural messages can significantly affect the development of addiction and eating disorders. Peer pressure and the desire to fit in can also be a powerful environmental trigger, particularly in young adults.
  • Emotional and physical trauma: Left untreated, past emotional and physical traumas can significantly influence present substance or food issues. Eating disorders and addiction are typically symptoms of a much deeper issue.
  • Emotional health: Suffering from any untreated mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD can make a personal vulnerable to developing an addiction or eating disorder.

While eating disorders and addictions affect all types of people, these factors can increase a person’s risk of developing either condition.



Eating disorders and substance abuse have a close relationship to each other. As with other psychological disorders, having an eating disorder can increase the risk that a person will attempt to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to ease their symptoms. When self-medicating, the risk of developing dependence or addiction is very high as patients become used to the dulled or altered symptoms.

Further, some drugs can actually support an eating disorder, such as stimulants like Adderall, meth, and cocaine, all of which suppress appetite without feeling negative effects. Other substances, like alcohol and other depressants, help people with eating disorders by relieving the stress and anxiety surrounding food.

A 2013 study found that people with eating disorders were five times as likely to abuse alcohol or illicit drugs as those without it. It was found that 50% of people who had an eating disorder abused drugs and alcohol, compared to 9% of the general population. On the other hand, those who abused alcohol or illicit drugs were 11 times more likely to have an eating disorder as those who did not use substances. Up to 35% of people who abused or were dependent on drugs and alcohol have had an eating disorder in the past, compared to 3% of the general population.


Recovering from addiction and eating disorders simultaneously, also known as “dual diagnosis” or “co-occurring disorders,” requires a comprehensive and integrated treatment approach that addresses both conditions concurrently. Here are some strategies for achieving recovery from addiction and eating disorders simultaneously:

Integrated Treatment Programs

Seek out treatment programs that specialize in dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. These programs offer integrated therapies that address both addiction and eating disorders simultaneously, recognizing the interconnected nature of these conditions.

Multidisciplinary Approach

Engage with a multidisciplinary treatment team that includes professionals such as physicians, therapists, nutritionists, and addiction specialists. This team can provide comprehensive assessment, personalized treatment plans, and coordinated care to address the complex needs of individuals with dual diagnosis.

Address Underlying Issues

Explore and address the underlying psychological, emotional, and environmental factors contributing to both addiction and eating disorders. Therapy modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and trauma-informed therapy can help individuals develop coping skills, improve self-awareness, and address maladaptive patterns of thinking and behavior.

Nutritional Rehabilitation

Work with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to develop a balanced and individualized meal plan that supports both physical and mental health. Nutritional rehabilitation is essential for restoring proper nutrition, addressing deficiencies, and rebuilding a healthy relationship with food.

Supportive Environment

Surround yourself with a supportive network of family, friends, peers, and support groups who understand and respect your journey toward recovery. Participating in support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Overeaters Anonymous (OA), or Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) can provide invaluable peer support and encouragement.

Mindfulness and Self-Care Practices

Incorporate mindfulness-based practices, relaxation techniques, and self-care activities into your daily routine to manage stress, regulate emotions, and promote overall well-being. Mindfulness meditation, yoga, journaling, and creative expression can help individuals cultivate self-awareness, self-compassion, and emotional resilience.

Continued Monitoring and Relapse Prevention

Stay engaged in ongoing monitoring, follow-up care, and relapse prevention efforts to maintain long-term recovery from addiction and eating disorders. Recognize and address early warning signs or triggers, develop relapse prevention strategies, and remain connected to supportive resources and treatment services as needed.

Recovering from addiction and eating disorders simultaneously is a challenging but achievable goal with the right support, resources, and commitment to self-care and healing. It’s essential to be patient, compassionate with yourself, and celebrate each step forward on the journey toward holistic recovery.



When an eating disorder co-occurs with substance abuse, addiction, and/or mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, it is important to seek comprehensive support. Like other forms of addiction, people with eating disorders have the power to overcome them with commitment and the right treatment.

It is important to treat any and all conditions together in order to achieve the best possible outcomes and to achieve long-term recovery.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, addiction or an eating disorder, help is available at Cumberland Heights. Click here to learn more about treatment at Cumberland Heights.

To hear a special podcast recording with Claire Fierman and Katie White from A Center for Eating Disorders, click here!