Addictions and Eating Disorders

Addictions and eating disorders may seem at first glance to be completely unrelated. Yet, if we look closer, we will find connections. Some sources estimate that 30 to 50 percent of all bulimics also suffer from alcohol or drug addiction. Substance abuse problems are believed to be less common among people with anorexia, but they still occur. Compulsive eaters may also become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Addictions and eating disorders may occur simultaneously or one may follow the other. Keep in mind that drugs, alcohol and food are not the only things to which one can become addicted; people can become addicted to things like gambling, shopping and sex as well.

Addictions and Eating Disorders

Transfer Addictions

Some alcoholics and drug addicts develop eating disorders after gaining sobriety from alcohol and drugs, and some anorexics and bulimics develop drug and alcohol addictions after recovering from their eating disorders. Sometimes called a transfer addiction, in these cases they substitute one disorder for another.

Anorexics, bulimics and compulsive eaters may abuse alcohol or drugs for the same reasons they use food in unhealthful ways. Alcohol and drugs can block out painful feelings, just like food (or lack of food) can. Food, alcohol and drugs can all be used to self-medicate. Everyone undergoing treatment for addictions or eating disorders should be aware of the possibility of transfer addiction. To prevent the development of transfer addictions, those in recovery need to address the underlying issues that led to the development of their disorders. Simply abstaining from alcohol or drugs, or simply eating more food, does not really solve the problem.

Treatment of Addictions and Eating Disorders

People that abuse alcohol and drugs need professional treatment, just as anorexics, bulimics and compulsive eaters do. People struggling with both issues are best served by a treatment program that addresses both conditions at the same time, but unfortunately there are not too many treatment programs that do this. People that are experiencing significant medical problems related to eating disorders should seek treatment for eating disorders first, if they must choose between treatment for addictions and eating disorders.

Treating food addiction can be quite a challenge because while alcoholics can learn to abstain from alcohol and drug addicts can learn to abstain from drugs, no one can abstain from food for long. Many of the coping skills that can help alcoholics and drug addicts abstain from alcohol and drugs, though, can also help people with eating disorders abstain from unhealthy habits and behaviors related to food.

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Coping skills taught in treatment programs typically include ways to cope with stress, express emotions and handle conflict. Those with eating disorders and addictions often have poor self-esteem and feelings of guilt related to their disorders, which should be addressed in treatment programs. Anorexics, bulimics, compulsive eaters, alcoholics and drug addicts all have high rates of relapse, so relapse prevention strategies are a common component of most treatment programs, as well.

Individuals with addictions and eating disorders have the greatest chance of recovery when they have a solid support system including medical doctors, therapists, family and friends, and self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous. Inpatient treatment is often, though not always, necessary at the beginning of the treatment process. Involvement from family members is crucial and most treatment programs include them in the treatment process in various ways.

Professionals treating addictions should watch for signs of eating disorders in their patients, and those treating eating disorders should screen patients for signs of alcohol or drug addiction. Patients should be offered additional services if professionals find they do suffer additional disorders beyond those that brought them to treatment.


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For more information about alcoholism, and to learn about alcoholism treatment, you can follow these links. While it is unknown as to why some people with eating disorders also develop drug addictions, there is treatment available. Both the eating disorder and the drug addiction need to be treated.


Written by: Colleen Thompson
-The Body Betrayed: A Deeper Understanding of Women, Eating Disorders, and Treatment by Katheryn J. Zerbe, M.D. – Gurze Books, 1995