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Almost everyone worries about their weight at some point in their lives. With how heavily body image is stereotyped in society nowadays, this is no surprise. When body image and weight become problematic, and a person takes such concerns to extremes, a person can acquire an eating disorder. The American Psychological Association states that eating disorders are abnormal eating habits that may threaten one’s health or the entirety of one’s life. Eating disorders share a connection with addiction because they both narrate the life of an individual. Eating disorders are classified as addictive behaviors linked to underlying mental health problems. 

Anorexia Nervosa and Addiction

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a distorted perception of weight, with an individual typically believing they are fat even when they are dangerously thin. People experiencing anorexia nervosa will commonly share an intense fear of gaining weight and restrict calorie intake or exercise excessively. Diagnostic criteria must include the following: 

  • Restriction of food intake relative to low body weight in the context of age, sex, and development
  • Intense fear of gaining weight though underweight
  • Disturbances in body image or denial of current low body weight 

There are also several emotional, behavioral, and physical warning signs and symptoms that are important to know when understanding this diagnosis. 

Research by the Curr Drug Abuse Review has found that although anorexia is not an addiction in and of itself, individuals with anorexia are addicted to a sense of control with food intake and hunger. There is an addiction to the control of body image present as well here. Individuals with anorexia nervosa behave similarly to individuals with a substance addiction because of alterations in the reward system in the brain. Alcohol or drug effects produce a rewarding sensation in the brain, and similarly, weight loss or starvation effects can also create rewarding feelings in the brain. 

Bulimia Nervosa and Addiction 

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by a loss of control over eating, followed by purging to rid the body of food. People experiencing bulimia may use different methods to prevent weight gains, such as self-induced purging, the use of laxatives or other drugs, or fasting or diet restriction. Individuals with bulimia are focused on weight and body shape and experience harsh judgment from themselves. Diagnostic criteria must include the following and happen at least once a week for three months:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating
  • Recurrent compensatory behavior to prevent weight gain
  • Self-image relying on body shape and weight

There are also significant emotional, behavioral, and physical warning signs to be aware of with this eating disorder. 

Similar to anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa is an addiction to a sense of control. The reward center in the brain is affected similarly as well. The connection that substance addiction has with bulimia is that both food and drugs are experienced as cravings. These cravings become associated with specific emotions or situations over time, which act as positive reinforcement to the addiction at hand. Though addiction is described as a loss of control, bulimia nervosa is a loss of control over cravings. Psychology Today explains that many people with bulimia report symptoms similar to drug withdrawal when they try to abstain from binging or purging. These symptoms include anxiety, disturbed sleep, and intense cravings. 

Binge Eating Disorder and Addiction

Binge eating disorder is characterized by frequent and vast consumption of food. People experiencing binge eating disorders feel a loss of control during binge episodes followed by feelings of shame or distress. Diagnostic criteria must include the following: 

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating
  • Marked distress from binge eating
  • Binges must not be associated with the recurrent use of compensatory behaviors

Binge eating episodes must be associated with at least three of the following: 

  • Eating faster than normal
  • Feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating significant amounts of food when not hungry
  • Eating alone due to embarrassment 
  • Feeling depressed or guilty after eating

Emotional, behavioral, and physical warning signs are unique to each eating disorder. 

Similar to other eating disorders, binge eating is classified as an addiction to food. Compared to anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, individuals experiencing binge eating disorders tend to be overweight or obese. Many factors play a role in developing addiction and eating disorders alike, such as genetics, environment, emotional and physical trauma, and overall well-being. 

Co-Occurring Eating Disorders and Substance Use

Though each eating disorder has its own link to addiction, it is essential to note that eating disorders and substance use addiction are often co-occurring. This means that an individual may experience one because of the other or experience both substance use and an eating disorder at the same time. The National Eating Disorders Association explains that nearly 50% of individuals with a present eating disorder have also experienced alcohol and drug abuse. Almost every other person experiencing an eating disorder also experiences a substance use problem. 

If you or someone you know struggles with an eating disorder or addiction, you are not alone. Becoming aware of signs and symptoms for each diagnosis an essential in recognizing warning signs in others and yourself. Eating disorders are characterized as having addictive behaviors towards food and can be life-threatening if not treated. When body image and food intake become a priority of concern, an eating disorder may develop. Often substance addiction and eating disorders can co-occur and can intensify each other over time. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we focus on treating the individual and co-occurring disorders at the root of the problem. We prioritize holistic forms of treatment that allow you to reconnect with your best self. For more information on co-occurring disorders, eating disorders, or substance use addiction, please give us a call at (760) 492-6509. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we are ready to help you heal.