Eating Disorders While in Addiction recovery
Above any other mental health condition, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate.
They are so pervasive and can affect anyone - both men and women.
Those in recovery from substance abuse disorder are especially at risk.
Approximately 20% of people who work through their addictions find themselves struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating.
Research indicates that 35% of people struggling with addiction have also struggled with an eating disorder.
Unfortunately, relationships with food can become quite complex, especially during recovery.
Read on to learn about a common thread between eating disorders and substance abuse. Discover how you can get help if you’re struggling.
The emotional cause of eating disorders
Like substance abuse disorders, eating disorders can be caused by the perfect storm of genetics, environment, trauma, and emotional health.
Eating disorders often aren’t actually about food, and can be a symptom of an emotional struggle.
The same can be said for substance use. It’s less about the substance itself, and more about the emotions that the drugs and alcohol are poorly managing.
Using Food to Cope
Many people unwittingly find themselves using food to numb out their emotions. Some people may experience a binge episode to push down feelings that they don't want to feel.
For some, food provides the same effects emotionally that the substance was able to provide.
In addition, people may go to food in order to replace feelings that they never received, such as love. For example, someone may feel so good while indulging in something, and subconsciously feel that what they're getting from the food is love, and it makes them feel good.
Some foods, such as those high in sugar, actually activate the same reward centers in the brain as engaging in substance use. The neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes us feel good, is released during both of these actions.
People may also use food as a means of escaping their everyday problems and everyday life. By focusing on and experiencing excessive obsessive thoughts regarding food and meals, it helps people to not focus on the other things going on in their lives that may be too painful to face. This way, food acts as a means of escape.
For some, disordered eating behaviours may provide a sense of control. A person may feel that they never had control in their lives. They think food is the one thing that they can control. The thing is, when trying so hard to control something externally, we actually relinquish our inherent power.
These actions are often subconscious, but acknowledging and understanding these roots can provide a foundation for a healthy journey towards recovery.
Struggling with eating disorders in recovery
According to the research, 65% of people gain weight after rehab. The thing is, gaining weight during and after rehab is completely normal. Typically, the body is incredibly undernourished following on from years of substance use, and gaining weight can allow the body to stabilise and get back to a healthy weight.
In addition, studies show that men in early recovery from addiction struggle with emotional eating, binge eating, and using foods to substitute substance use. The research demonstrated that men had a hard time managing their cravings, and used food to satisfy these urges.
It's important to acknowledge that even though weight gain can happen, it may still be difficult to deal with this psychologically. For some, weight gain can have a profound impact on their mental health, emotional health, and self-image.
Research shows that people in mid- to later- recovery experienced concerns regarding their weight and difficulties in losing weight. This can be dangerous as it can easily slip into disordered eating behaviours if not acknowledged.
Below are some common eating disorders that many people struggle with, along with ways to treat them.
Anorexia is an eating disorder that is characterised by an intense fear of gaining weight, and an obsessive desire to lose weight.
People who suffer from anorexia will refuse to eat meals and will significantly restrict what they do eat. They may use diet pills, laxatives, and excessive forms of exercise to control their weight.
Bulimia is an eating disorder that involves a damaging cycle of bingeing and purging. Those who suffer from bulimia will binge on foods, followed by a purge or engagement in laxative use, in an attempt to control their weight.
It is a myth that people with bulimia are underweight, as many can be average or above average weight. Worryingly, those with a history of substance abuse are 8 times more likely to develop bulimia than those who do not have a history of substance abuse.
Compulsive eating is an eating disorder wherein a person will engage in a bingeing period, consuming thousands of calories in a small amount of time.
There is a sense of losing control, as people who struggle with compulsive overeating can continue to consume calories well after feeling full. Approximately 25% of people who struggle with binge eating disorder, or compulsive eating, also have a history of substance abuse.
Getting help for eating disorders in addiction recovery
Research shows that people who struggle with substance abuse are 11 times more likely to suffer from eating disorders than those who do not abuse drugs or alcohol.
It can be easy to beat yourself up. After all, you battled an all-consuming addition and now you might feel like you have another mountain to climb. However, this is so common, and takes incredible courage and bravery to acknowledge.
For many, addiction and disordered eating go hand-in-hand, but there are options for treatment and recovery through therapy and nutrition plans.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, try to seek consultation from a nutritionist. Eating disorders can cause significant physical damage to the body including but not limited to muscle breakdown, low blood pressure, digestive issues, nervous system issues, and sleep issues. They can also prevent the brain from receiving the nutrients it needs to function optimally. All of these effects can have a detrimental impact on your recovery.
There are many pillars of support for those struggling with eating disorders, from support groups such as Overeaters Anonymous to the Grey Sheet Programme. Having structured support from the outset is vital in maintaining recovery from eating disorders.
The most important thing is to receive dual-diagnosis treatment for both conditions together. Be honest with your doctor, counsellor, or therapist, so they can formulate the best treatment plan for you.
- Explaining Excessive Weight Gain during Early Recovery from Addiction https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6474807/
- Weight gain after detox - https://www.turningpointnj.org/detox-faq/weight-gain-after-detox/
- Food, eating, and weight concerns of men in recovery from substance addiction https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666307003030
- Anorexia Nervosa: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anorexia-nervosa/symptoms-causes/syc-20353591
- Substance Use Disorders in Women with Anorexia Nervosa https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2807480/