Addictions And Eating Disorders: Why They Often Go Hand-In-Hand

By Marlene Passell

Eating Disorders

When one has a drug or alcohol addiction, recovery means stop using, but the same isn’t true, of course, when it comes to an eating disorders.

Yet, addictions and eating disorders often go hand-in-hand. Why? According to Dr. Sue Babcock, a licensed clinical psychologist who treats eating disorders, it’s because the same individuals who seek a way to cope with stress, violence, low self-esteem and other life issues sometimes turn to food as a remedy rather than alcohol or drugs. Too often, those same individuals do both.

Unfortunately, eating disorders and addictions occur together frequently. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that:

• Half of all people with eating disorders abuse drugs or alcohol, compared with 9% of the general population

• Up to 35% of people who abuse drugs or alcohol have an eating disorder, compared with 3% of the general population.

“Here you are feeling very vulnerable and anxious trying to recover from drugs or alcohol, and food is one thing you feel you can have control over – what you put in your mouth,” said Dr. Babcock. “Even those without eating disorders can develop issues with eating and body image while in drug or alcohol treatment. As one way of coping or avoiding something goes away, another maladaptive behavior, such as compulsive eating, strict diets, or binging and purging may arise.”

Some 90 percent of those struggling with eating disorders are women which makes it even tougher for that minority of men facing the same issue to admit it and seek help. And, says Dr. Babcock, recovery from eating disorders is often a long road. “It really requires putting into place a lot of different coping skills – tolerating difficult emotions, learning to accept one’s body shape and size and listening to hunger and fullness.”

While eating disorders are sometimes identified during evaluation when a woman is entering a treatment program, at other times they come to light through the observations of therapists and other clinical personnel at a recovery facility. They will note the woman’s eating habits or hear negative comments about the facility’s food or about body image.

“Women who are really serious about recovery are open about it,” said Dr. Babcock. In her work with addicts who have eating disorders, Dr. Babcock said she uses a nonjudgmental approach. Often, in individual and group settings, the conversation centers on body image, learning to see yourself in a more positive light, not talking negatively about your body or food. And, of course, finding positive ways to cope with stressors is the key to recovery from an eating disorder.

Just as with alcohol or drugs, said Dr. Babcock, factors leading to eating disorders can include genetic, personality (impulse control, perfectionism), environmental influences and, of course, the media, especially when it comes to women. “In our culture, many people are so afraid of being fat. Even well-meaning family members often dwell on body image in the context of good health.”

Dr. Babcock said many areas have a 12-step program for eating disorders – Overeaters Anonymous and Eating Disorders Anonymous focusing on binge eating, bulimia and anorexia. There is also a national organization with local offices that can be reached at If you have an eating disorder along with a drug or alcohol addiction, make sure you pick a treatment facility that can treat both.

Dr. Sue Babcock, has a private practice in Boca Raton, FL, and provides eating disorder therapy at Wayside House, a women’s addiction recovery treatment center in Delray Beach, FL. She has worked in the mental health field for over 20 years; her experience includes private practice and a concentrated focus on eating disorders with The Emily Program in St. Paul, MN, and Oliver-Pyatt Centers in Miami, FL. She can be reached at