How are eating disorders related to food addiction?

In this short post, we identify the two distinct eating disorder types (anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa) and relate them to the physical, psychological and spiritual underpinnings of any addiction.

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What are the main eating disorders?

Eating disorders are serious behavior problems. They include:

1. Anorexia nervosa – extreme weight loss or restriction of caloric intake due to a misconception of being overweight
2. Bulimia nervosa – periods of overeating followed by purging through self-induced vomiting or laxatives
3. Eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS)

How are eating disorders related to addiction?

1. Physical causes – Researchers are currently investigate possible biochemical or biological causes of eating disorders. Certain chemicals in the brain that control hunger, appetite, and digestion have been found to be imbalanced. Current research also indicates that there are significant genetic contributions to eating disorders, as eating disorders often run in families.

2. Psychological causes – Eating disorders are often an attempt to manage overwhelming feelings and emotions. Behavioral control of diet can be a way to cope with painful emotions and to feel in control of one’s life,

3. Spiritual causes – Eating disorders are, at heart, the result of disconnection with a greater power that brings purpose, meaning and hope to life.

How do doctors treat eating disorder?

Appropriate and necessary treatment for an eating disorder will include a combination of medical treatment and psychiatric treatment. The first goal for the treatment of an eating disorder is to ensure physical health by restoring healthy weight. The next goal of treatment is to reduce or eliminate the person’s eating behavior. Behavioral therapy can help a person return to healthy eating habits. Supportive group therapy may follow, and self-help groups within communities may provide ongoing support.

What’s the cure for an eating disorder?

In my opinion, the only way to cure any behavioral addiction is total abstinence from the substance or behavior, which is supported by a 12 step program. The 12 steps are designed to address the psychological and spiritual causes of an addiction, and to clean up the inner life which drives a person to addiction. If there are any other opinions or experiences out there, I’m interested to hear them…can the 12 steps work for a lifetime to help stop eating disorders?

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.


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  1. Thank you for this site and its messages.

    However, my addiction is to sugar and all the foods that contribute towards producing a sugar high in my blood stream.

  2. The concept of food addiction covers a wider field than self-development or self-help: personal development also includes developing others. This may take place through roles such as those of a teacher or mentor.

  3. Thanks so much for your feedback, Brittany. I sense that you have been personally affected by an eating disorder (personal or someone close) and are extremely informed about it! I must admit that I do have a bias towards spiritual connection, as this helps drive my life and purpose. After years of being an agnostic, I find that belief in a driving force in the universe calms many doubts and fears. How would you suggest that the wording in the “Spiritual causes” be changed?

  4. I believe an eating disorder is an addiction. It is an addiction to food. It is a coping mechanism. Although the coping mechanism is unhealthy and dangerous, it works for the people who get relief from it. Similar to the relief someone suffering obsessive compulsive disorder get by performing rituals, those who have an eating disorder use it as a way to handle their overwhelming emotions.

    I am not clear on what the “spiritual causes” described above are. That particular section sounds biased. It makes it sound like one MUST be connected to higher power. This completely disregards atheism or those who simply believe we are just animals. We live and we die like everything else. I think the wording needs to be different in order to include all potential beliefs or understandings of our existence.

    In the “How do doctors treat an eating disorder” section, I agree with the weight restoration and the need for development of healthy, normal, eating habits. Often inpatient or intensive outpatient treatment is best for getting the food behaviors undercontrol in a supervised, supportive setting. Vitals and other monitoring is essential to keep patients safe and on track. I do believe treatment must incorporate individual psychotherapy. For eating disorders–and addiction in general–Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) has been proven successful for many. Much of the cause of eating disorders is the inability to handle emotions properly. By focusing on one’s thoughts and feelings, behaviors can change. In order to enter recovery, all three (thoughts, behaviors, and feelings) must be addressed to control the disorder.

    Lastly, in the “What’s the cure for an eating disorder” section, I want to make it clear that there is no cure. Because people must eat to survive, total abstinence from the drug (food) is impossible. Instead, recovery is the maintenance of using healthy coping mechanisms instead of unhealthy coping mechanisms. Recovery is not perfection, but the moving forward in a positive direction. I agree that twelve step may offer some support for eating disorders; however, it is only one option. Overeaters anonymous (OA) is a good group which focuses on food issues. I do want to stress the importance of same-gender self help groups. Although men suffer from eating disorders, women still make up the majority of cases. This is one reason I strongly suggest same-gender support groups. Especially because deep emotional issues are often discussed as being the underlying turmoil driving the behaviors.

  5. I started the first inpatient eating disorder treatment program in Northeast Louisiana in 1987. I have treated hundreds of ED sufferers since then. In my opinion, conquering an eating disorder is much harder than getting into recovery from alcoholism of substance dependence. It takes an enormous amount of willingness to go to any reasonable lengths to get well. I fully endorse the combination of psychiatric care, addictionist care, therapy, nutritional counseling and 12 step meetings. Accountability with physician, therapist, nutritionist and sponsor is of paramount importance. Recovery from and eating disorder takes time and is usually fraught with setbacks. Patience and time are essential to allow progressive healing and complete abstinence from the addictive behaviors and/or food.

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