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Addiction and Eating Disorders

A toxic and often secret partnership

At school and the media, school-aged youth are bombarded with unhealthy, unrealistic messages about being thin, popular, attractive, cool, etc. The need to fit in can lead to feelings of fear and insecurity. This manifests as poor body image, unhealthy dieting and drug/alcohol experimentation. Without intervention, these behaviors can develop into eating disorders and addictions.

Left untreated, both eating disorders and addictions can have dire consequences. This includes disruption of school, compromised relationships, physiological illnesses, cognitive challenges and premature death. In fact, anorexia nervosa and addiction have the highest death rates of any mental health condition. However, hope and healing is possible with the help of supportive a family and medical intervention.

Dr. Dena Cabrera, clinical director at Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders, shares insight and observations about the critical link between eating disorders and addiction in youth. She also offers a bit of advice to concerned parents and youth.

The relationship between addiction and eating disorderseating disorders

According to Cabrera, if you suspect that a young person in your life struggles with an eating disorder or addiction, it is important to also look out for co-occurring addiction or eating disorder.

“At Rosewood Ranch, the eating disorder is secondary to a co-occurring condition in about 70 percent of our adolescent population,” she says. “Often, the primary condition is addiction, trauma, self-injury, severe anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder. In order to help our clients achieve long-term recovery, we have learned that it is essential to treat the whole person, including the root cause of his or her eating disorder and addiction.”

Dr. Cabrera’s anecdotal observations are supported by research by CASA Columbia, which indicates that up to 50 percent of those with eating disorders struggle with drug or alcohol abuse. Research also shows that 35 percent of those struggling with substance abuse problems, struggle with a co-occurring eating disorder. The correlation between substance abuse and binge eating disorders (BED) is particularly high. Up to 57 percent of males with BED are struggling with long term substance abuse.

The Numbers

Additional statistics from the CASA Columbia study include:

  • Girls ages 10 to 14 who dieted more than once a week were nearly four times as likely to smoke, compared to non-dieters.
  • Girls with eating disorder symptoms were almost four times as likely as girls without eating disorder symptoms to have abused inhalants and cocaine.
  • Of female high school students, 12.6 percent abused diet pills, powders or liquids to control their weight without a doctor’s advice.

Other Factors

People struggling with eating disorders and addiction share similar characteristics. Including the need for intensive professional treatment, high relapse rates, life threatening consequences, chronic illness, and preoccupation/secrecy. Evidence is showing that both substance abuse and eating disorders are by genetic, biological, environmental and physiological factors. Recent studies show an estimated 40 to 60 percent of an individual’s vulnerability to addiction can be genetic factors. Studies reveal a statistically high correlation between certain genetic factors and alcoholism.

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