Eating disorders and addiction are two different conditions that are often interlinked. Both disorders involve an intense preoccupation with a specific behavior or substance that becomes compulsive and leads to negative consequences. While they may appear different, there are many similarities between eating disorders and addiction.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are a group of mental illnesses characterized by abnormal eating habits, including restrictive eating, binge eating, or purging. These behaviors often stem from a distorted body image, low self-esteem, or other psychological issues. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are the most common eating disorders.


Addiction is a chronic brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Addiction can be caused by genetic, environmental, and developmental factors, and it can affect people from all walks of life. Substance addiction is the most common form of addiction, but behavioral addictions like gambling, sex, or video gaming are also prevalent.

Drug addiction and Eating Disorders – Similarities

Several similarities exist between drug addiction and eating disorders. Both can result from traumatic or stressful events, heredity, as well as from individual experiences and personality features. Moreover, co-occurring disorders, including melancholy, anxiety, ADHD, or PTSD, are frequently present in those who suffer from eating disorders and/or drug addiction. 

While eating disorders and addiction differ in their behaviors, they share many similarities. For example, both disorders involve a loss of control over one’s behavior. People with eating disorders often feel powerless over their eating habits, while people with addiction struggle to resist their cravings for drugs or alcohol. 

Another commonality between eating disorders and addiction is their impact on an individual’s mental health. Both disorders can cause depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues and often co-occur with other mental illnesses.

Furthermore, eating disorders and addiction often have similar triggers, such as stress, trauma, or low self-esteem. They can also be used as coping mechanisms for emotional pain or difficult life circumstances.

Research has also shown that people with eating disorders are at a higher risk for developing addiction and vice versa. For example, a study found that individuals with anorexia nervosa were five times more likely to develop a substance use disorder than the general population. Another study found that people with binge eating disorder had higher rates of substance abuse than those without the disorder.

Signs of addiction and eating disorders

One thing is evident from the data and research: eating disorders and substance use frequently coexist and occasionally look similar. The following symptoms should be considered while screening for an eating disorder or addiction: 

Behavioral indicators

  • Repeatedly attempting to stop detrimental behavior but failing.
  • A compulsion for food or substances that is excessive.
  • Intense cravings and rigid diet- or drug- or alcohol-related practices.
  • Avoiding others to conceal problematic eating habits or drug use.
  • Sacrificing other interests to devote more time to addictive habits and substances.
  • Continued drug or food use despite repercussions or strange eating patterns.

 What triggers addiction and eating disorders?

Genetic factors significantly contribute to eating disorders, as is frequently the case with addiction. Brain circuits shared by both disorders may help explain how frequently they co-occur.

Addiction can result from disordered eating and vice versa. 

Do addictions result from eating disorders?

They can, yes. Individuals’ likelihood of having a drug use disorder rises when they engage in binge-and-purge activity. For instance, drinking alcohol is a common way for people to cope with the stress associated with eating.

Those who struggle with eating disorders may abuse drugs or alcohol to suppress their appetite. They might try a variety of drugs, such as:

  • Cannabis 
  • Tobacco 
  • Caffeine

Over time, using these drugs to reduce hunger could accidentally result in addiction.

Moreover, teenagers with eating problems are more likely to use drugs as adults. Studies have also revealed a link between exercise addiction and eating disorders.

Yet, some research indicates that eating disorders and food addiction are two distinct medical illnesses.

Does substance abuse result in eating disorders?

There has been little research done to address this issue. Experts hypothesize that alcohol use can cause binge eating in bulimia nervosa sufferers.

According to one study, runners at risk of exercise addiction were also at risk of eating disorders.

More research is required to determine if addiction might cause or contribute to the emergence of an eating disorder.

How do you treat addictions and eating disorders? 

There are programs to help people with both eating disorders and addiction. Both disorders can be treated simultaneously or one at a time. If both conditions can be treated simultaneously, it can help the person get better. The patient and the healthcare provider can decide on the treatment plan together. The plan will depend on how bad each disorder is and whether or not inpatient treatment is needed.

Like addiction treatment, treatment for eating disorders involves teams of people from different fields to meet all needs. These things are:

  • Therapists
  • Dieticians 
  • Dentists 
  • Doctors
  • Nurses

Since disordered eating is often the cause of malnutrition, treatment may involve both medical stabilization and nutritional rehabilitation. Medication, and individual and family therapy may also be used as part of the treatment.

What should you do if your loved one has an addiction or an eating disorder?

First, try to understand yourself and be kind to yourself. This is important whether you or someone you care about is having trouble.

The best way to help someone you care about is to listen to them. Doing this without judging or telling them what to do is essential. Addiction and eating disorders can be hard to deal with and have many different parts. So it’s usually not helpful to just tell someone to eat more or stop drinking. Doing this will make them less likely to ask you for help.

Also, keep talking to your loved one like you would if they didn’t have a drug problem or an eating disorder. This means you should keep telling them you love them, invite them to events (even if they often say no), and praise their skills. Compliments that have nothing to do with their appearance can help them feel better about themselves even if their body doesn’t change.

Lastly, don’t think you know everything or can be their therapist. During the week, you can call the eating disorders helpline to ask questions or get help for yourself or a loved one. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also has a national helpline to help you find a program to treat substance abuse or bad behavior.

Final note

Eating disorders and addiction share many similarities, including loss of control, mental health issues, similar triggers, and a higher risk for co-occurrence. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or addiction, seeking professional help is essential to manage symptoms and improve your overall quality of life.