Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating disorder have captured national attention in recent years. While millions of Americans try to lose weight through diets, exercise programs and cleanses, the South Carolina Department of Mental Health estimates that one out of every 200 American women meets the criteria for anorexia, while two to three out of every 100 suffer from bulimia. Although eating disorders primarily affect females, the obsession with weight and dieting is becoming increasingly common in boys and men.
Compulsive, disordered eating behaviors have been associated with a high risk of substance abuse. People who have a distorted body image and a low self-esteem often turn to binge drinking, illicit drug use or prescription drugs as a way to cope with painful feelings. Stimulants like cocaine or meth are frequently used to promote weight loss or to purge unwanted calories after an eating binge. Integrated treatment programs offer hope for recovery to individuals who struggle with eating disorders and addiction.
Statistics on Eating Disorders
In a culture that’s obsessed with body weight and physical appearance, diet and exercise often become a focal point for anxiety and fear. Eating disorders have become disturbingly widespread in the United States, affecting 24 million people in every age group, according to the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders. Statistics on eating disorders indicate that the problem is still not being adequately treated:
- In the past 50 years, the number of individuals with eating disorders has more than doubled.
- Only 10 percent of individuals with eating disorders receive any kind of treatment.
- Out of those who are treated, only 35 percent receive care at a facility that specializes in eating disorder treatment.
- About 80 percent of the individuals who get treatment aren’t in therapy long enough to achieve a full recovery.
- More people die from eating disorders than from any other psychiatric disorder.
- Up to half of the individuals who suffer from eating disorders also meet the criteria for clinical depression.
Males and females of all ages can develop disordered eating patterns. However, the Eating Disorders Coalition estimates that over 90 percent are female adolescents. Anorexia nervosa is one of the leading causes of death among young women and girls, with a mortality rate of 20 percent. Dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, low blood pressure, and other severe side effects of eating disorders can lead to chronic health problems and death, even in teens and young adults.
If you or someone you love has developed harmful diet or exercise habits, you may have an eating disorder. Substance abuse, combined with severe dietary restrictions or compulsive eating habits, is one of the major warning signs. Professional intervention may be necessary to help you or your loved one regain control of your life and prevent serious damage to your health.
Signs of Common Eating Disorders
How do you know when a strict diet or a rigorous exercise program turns into an actual eating disorder? It’s not always easy to tell. By some estimates, 40 to 60 percent of teenagers have tried to lose weight, and adults are equally obsessed with weight loss in the United States. Understanding the signs of common eating disorders will alert you to this serious problem in yourself or someone close to you.
- Anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia insist on restricting their nutritional intake in order to maintain a weight below the average limit for their age and height. They often engage in complicated eating rituals, like cutting up their food into tiny pieces or eating only a limited number of foods. They may practice purging behaviors like vomiting, exercising compulsively or abusing laxatives in order to lose more weight. Obsessive about their weight and body size, they may weigh or measure themselves multiple times throughout the day. Physical symptoms include extreme thinness, pallor, excessive body hair, thin or brittle hair, loss of menstrual periods, dizziness, fatigue, fainting spells, low blood pressure and dehydration.
- Bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is characterized by a pattern of binge eating and purging. People with bulimia may consume thousands of calories at a single sitting, then purge the calories by forcing themselves to vomit, exercising fanatically, or using laxatives or stimulant drugs. Unlike anorexia, bulimia doesn’t necessarily lead to extreme weight loss, although the individual is obsessed with her weight. Many people with bulimia are of average weight or overweight. They frequently suffer severe shame and guilt over their bingeing patterns and are very secretive about their purging habits. The symptoms of bulimia include sores in the mouth or gums, discoloration under the eyes, dry skin, thin hair, fatigue, sour breath, scars on the knuckles and swollen salivary glands. Depression and substance abuse are extremely common in people with this disorder.
- Binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder is one of the most common eating disorders, yet this condition has only recently received the attention it deserves from the medical community. The Binge Eating Disorder Association estimates that 8 million Americans have a problem with binge eating. People with binge eating disorder habitually consume large quantities of food in a short period of time, often in response to stress or unmanageable emotions. If you eat until you feel uncomfortable, eat a lot when you’re not hungry, or eat very quickly during these episodes, you may have binge eating disorder. After a binge, you may feel extreme guilt or remorse, yet feel unable to stop the episode once it begins. People with this condition do not purge the extra calories, so they are often overweight; however, obesity is not necessarily a sign of binge eating disorder. The condition can cause the same health problems associated with overeating and obesity, such as high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Not everyone who has self-destructive eating patterns meets the diagnostic criteria for one of the common eating disorders. Eating disorders not otherwise specified is a category of dysfunctional behaviors that fall outside of the typical patterns. If you feel fear, guilt or shame about the way you eat, it’s important to seek help from compassionate professionals who understand these complicated, serious disorders.
Causes and Risk Factors
Mood disorders and anxiety disorders are common among people who live with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. According to the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, alterations in neurotransmitters like serotonin, a brain chemical that promotes emotional stability, are responsible for both eating disorders and depression or anxiety. On the other hand, the chemical changes brought on by self-starvation, purging and bingeing cause imbalances in the brain that affect your moods and emotions.
Other possible causes and risk factors include:
- Genetic background. Eating disorders are seen more often in close relatives, like mothers and daughters or sisters.
- Family patterns. Pressure within the family to maintain a low weight may contribute to eating disorders. If family meals and activities center around weight loss, children may be more likely to develop an abnormal obsession with their body image.
- Social pressure. The cultural preoccupation with dieting and weight loss in the United States contributes to eating disorders, especially among impressionable children and teens.
- Physical or sexual abuse. Disorders like anorexia or bulimia may be a response to abuse experienced in childhood or adolescence.
- Anxiety and mood disorders. Having a mood disorder like depression or an anxiety disorder like obsessive-compulsive disorder may predispose you to compulsive, ritualistic eating patterns.
Low self-esteem and a distorted body image are often at the heart of an eating disorder. No matter how much weight you lose or how thin you become, you may always perceive yourself as fat. People with eating disorders live with a sense of anxiety and failure about their weight, even when they become dangerously emaciated.
What Do Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse Have in Common?
Eating disorders and substance abuse overlap in several significant ways. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University notes that chemical addiction and eating disorders arise from many of the same sources and display some of the same characteristics:
- Both share common risk factors, such as family history, imbalances in brain chemistry, stress and childhood abuse.
- Both tend to appear or to intensify during stressful life transitions, like the loss of a parent, a divorce, or the transition into puberty.
- Both often arise from low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.
- Both involve a pattern of compulsive behaviors (binge eating, excessive exercise, drug use, drinking, etc.).
- Both involve a preoccupation with a substance or activity (food, alcohol, drugs, dieting, exercising, etc.).
- Both eating disorders and substance abuse are chronic conditions that can produce severe, potentially fatal side effects.
On a more hopeful, positive note, people with eating disorders and substance abuse may benefit from an addiction treatment plan that integrates care for both conditions. Some of the same therapeutic strategies that are used to treat eating disorders may also be applied to substance abuse to promote a complete recovery:
- Individual psychotherapy emphasizing esteem-building and behavioral modification
- Family counseling to educate parents, spouses and partners
- Group therapy sessions with others who have a Dual Diagnosis of an eating disorder and substance abuse
- Pharmacological therapy with antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications to reduce the symptoms of an eating disorder
- Holistic therapies like acupuncture, yoga or massage to round out the healing process
- Nutritional counseling to replace destructive habits with healthy new eating behaviors
Rebuilding your self-image and creating a more satisfying future takes time and effort. With the help of experienced professionals at a Dual Diagnosis treatment facility, you can overcome addiction and build a happier, more rewarding life. With exclusive Dual Diagnosis treatment centers in Tennessee and California, Foundations Recovery Network is uniquely prepared to help you recover from eating disorders and chemical dependence. When you’re ready to reach out for help, we’re waiting to offer hope. Call our intake team to get the process started today.
Further Reading About Eating Disorders
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton