Why Eating Disorder Screenings Should Check for Addiction

Why Eating Disorder Screenings Should Check for Addiction

By Timberline Knolls 

Eating disorders and addiction are like partners in crime. Where one goes, the other often follows.

Up to 50% of people who are in treatment for an eating disorder also have a substance use disorder, while about 35% of those who are in treatment for addiction also have an eating disorder. Experts estimate that people who are suffering from addiction are 10 times more likely to have an eating disorder than the general population.

So why are these behavioral health conditions so connected?

The Battle with Body Image

Part of what ties these two conditions together is their connection with body image. Feeling uncomfortable with the size or shape of your body can be upsetting, and it can make even everyday activities too nerve-wracking to get through. When you spend nearly every day with that kind of stress, you may look to almost anything to change how you feel about your looks.

Some turn to over-the-counter medications like laxatives and diuretics, while others misuse prescription stimulants like Adderall® and Ritalin® and still others may use illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine to control their weight.

For many people, abusing certain substances is the only way they know how to manage the distress they feel about their body. The unintended consequence: an eating disorder and addiction.

Numbing Difficult Feelings

But eating disorders don’t always have to do with the way someone feels about their body. Sometimes someone’s relationship with food is actually tied to painful memories or difficulty managing intense emotions.

Research shows that people who have an eating disorder are much more likely to binge eat on days when they are feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed. Eating in certain ways can be a coping mechanism in the absence of healthier strategies.

But if those feelings or memories become overwhelming, a person might try to self-medicate the emotional pain they’ve been experiencing by abusing a substance like alcohol or prescription painkillers.

If they don’t receive any sort of professional intervention, that puts them at a high risk for developing an addiction on top of the eating disorder they’re already struggling with.

Comprehensive Screenings Are Key

There’s no doubt that eating disorders and addiction can be intertwined in many ways. That’s why it’s so important for someone who has an eating disorder to also be screened for addiction.

By conducting a comprehensive evaluation before a person starts eating disorder treatment, their care team can assess whether their life has been impacted by substance misuse. This will allow the care team to create an eating disorder treatment plan that also integrates therapies and services that are geared toward addiction recovery.

Living with two behavioral health conditions can be incredibly challenging. But with the right treatment, it’s possible to live a healthy, productive and satisfying life.