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Eating Disorders and Addiction

Eating disorders and addiction commonly occur together.

An eating disorder may be diagnosed in individuals who have developed an unhealthy relationship with food – whether this be obsessive dieting or excessive overeating.

Eating disorders often co-occur with other mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

If left untreated, an eating disorder can have far-reaching and grave consequences, often leading to hospitalisation, causing life-long health issues and, in extreme cases, even death.

What are the most common eating disorders?

According to the Butterfly Foundation, 4% of Australians are battling eating disorders at any given time. Out of the close to one million persons affected, 47% have binge eating disorder, 12% bulimia nervosa, 3% anorexia nervosa and 38% other specified eating disorders (OSFED).

Binge Eating Disorder

The act of binge eating is defined as eating abnormally large amounts of food over a short time span (i.e. two hours of continuous gorging) paired with the inability to stop this unhealthy behaviour. Binge eaters do not follow their excessive meals with purging behaviours, such as intense exercise or forcing oneself to throw up.

Binge eating often occurs when people are experiencing heightened levels of stress and anxiety, as it can be a coping mechanism. During binges food is consumed very quickly and past the point of comfort. Consequently, binge eating often leads to obesity, which can put a person’s health at significant risk.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is defined as repeated episodes of binge eating followed by what is known as ‘compensatory behaviours’.

These behaviours can include deliberate vomiting, excessive exercise, misuse of laxatives and/or diuretics and even substance abuse to control weight gain/loss.

If continued over time the cycle of overeating and compensation can take a serious toll on the body, often resulting in hospitalisation for conditions like ulcers and symptoms related to osteoporosis.

Persons battling bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa tend to have a distorted image of their body, often believing themselves to be overweight when they are not, and develop an obsession with their physical appearance.

Anorexia Nervosa

This eating disorder is characterised by extreme weight loss over a short period of time and the inability to regain and/or maintain a healthy weight.

There are two main types of anorexia nervosa:

  • Restricting – meaning a person will severely limit their food intake by skipping meals, refusing certain food groups (fats, carbohydrate, sugars etc) and count calories relentlessly. Often sufferers also develop behaviours such as only eating foods of one colour.
  • Binge eating/purging – mirroring the characteristics of bulimia nervosa (see above) with the important difference that during anorexia nervosa the bingeing/purging behaviour is continued until extreme weight loss occurs.

Eating disorders and addiction

Eating disorders can be difficult to recognise for families and close friends of those affected.

As sufferers are likely to be extremely secretive about their unhealthy eating habits and not all eating disorders lead to dramatic weight loss, it can be difficult to spot the early warning signs.

However, even if a person has lived with an eating disorder for years, support from committed professionals can make recovery possible.

How important is Dual Treatment?

Dual treatment, also often referred to as integrated treatment, is imperative for persons with a dual diagnosis of eating disorders and addiction.

If either condition is ignored or neglected in the treatment process, the risk of relapse increases significantly.

Whether the substance abuse is a response to the symptoms of the eating disorder or has caused the onset of the condition, neither issue can be dealt with in isolation.

In order to equip a patient with coping strategies that will allow them to identify triggers for their addiction in the future and teach them how to recognise early warning signs of an eating disorder, a comprehensive treatment plan must be established to treat the eating disorder and addiction together.

If the co-occurring eating disorders and addiction are appropriately addressed during treatment, the chances for recovery and a successful re-entry into a life worth living are remarkably high.

Find out more

Mental Health and Addiction
Diagnosing Mental Health Disorders
Common Co-Occurring Disorders
Mental Health Effects of Ice
Are Mental Health and Addiction Connected?

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