Relationship Between Substance Use and Eating Disorders

by | Eating Disorder Recovery

In many individuals’ experience, two significant challenges overlap—substance use disorders (SUD) and eating disorders. These issues can occur together, presenting a unique set of difficulties. In this blog, we’ll explore the connection between substance use and eating disorders, with a focus on the concept of symptom substitution. We will also provide a list of additional resources located in Virginia. 

Understanding Substance Use and Eating Disorders

Substance use involves an unhealthy pattern of using substances, such as alcohol or drugs, leading to impairment and distress. Eating disorders, on the other hand, encompass a range of conditions characterized by irregular eating habits and severe distress about body weight or shape. However, the two do have many parallels. Below are two examples of how substance use and eating disorders relate to each other.

1. A Coping Mechanism

Both Substance Use Disorder and Eating Disorders often arise as coping mechanisms. Substance use may numb emotional pain while eating behaviors can serve as a way to regain control or cope with stress. They become a refuge, a silent ally in the battle against internal struggles.

2. Symptom Substitution

The concept of symptom substitution is where one coping mechanism is replaced by another. Picture a seesaw, where the burden on one side is lifted only to be transferred to the other. Someone in recovery from a substance use disorder may find solace in the routines and rituals of an eating disorder, unknowingly trading one set of struggles for another.

Unpacking the Connection

Now you know how substance use and eating disorders are connected, but now it’s time to discuss the why. What is really going on when someone is struggling with substance use or an eating disorder? What is driving them to engage in these types of negative behaviors? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is difficult to find and differs from person to person. However, below are three common issues or “motivations” that are associated with substance use and eating disorders.

1. Coping with Emotional Pain

Both SUD and ED are often rooted in emotional pain. Substance use may temporarily mask feelings, and eating behaviors can serve as a tangible outlet for emotions.

2. Control and Escapism

Controlling one’s substance use or regulating food intake can provide a semblance of order in a chaotic world. It becomes a way to escape, if only momentarily.

3. Self-Esteem and Body Image

Issues with self-esteem and body image are common denominators. Whether it’s the pursuit of the perfect physique or the desire to fit societal norms, both disorders reflect a quest for acceptance.

Moving Towards Healing

Finally, let’s talk about the different steps necessary for the treatment of substance use and eating disorders.

1. Holistic Approach

Acknowledging the interconnected nature of substance use and eating disorders, a holistic approach to treatment is crucial. This involves addressing the root causes and providing comprehensive support.

2. Therapeutic Interventions

Working with skilled clinicians is a step towards helping. A specialized therapist and eating disorder dietitian can assist in uncovering the emotional side effects of both substance use and eating disorders. 

3. Support Networks

Building a support network is vital. Friends, family, and professionals can provide encouragement, understanding, and guidance on the path to recovery.

Below is also a list of additional resources in Virginia for those seeking help with substance use disorder (SUD) and/or an eating disorder.

Final Thoughts on the Relationship Between Substance Use and Eating Disorders

Thank you for reading this resource on the relationship between substance use and eating disorders. Let us approach the connection between substance use disorders and eating disorders with compassion and understanding. The individuals navigating these intertwined paths are on a journey toward healing, seeking solace in the midst of internal storms. Together, let us foster an environment where open dialogue and empathetic support can pave the way for recovery, one step at a time.

Contact Us

Courage to Nourish is a group of eating disorder specialized dietitians. We have in person locations in Alexandria, Virginia, Columbia, Maryland. and College Park, Maryland. We offer virtual services across the state of Virginia, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. We offer individual nutrition therapy. As well as support groups. We would love to guide you in building a better relationship with food.

Emilee Young, RD, LD, is an eating disorder dietitian who serves Alexandria, VA, Richmond, VA, Charlottesville, VA, Norfolk, VA, Virginia Beach, VA, and Roanoke, VA. She provides in person services in our Alexandria, VA office and virtual services elsewhere. Emilee also sees clients who live in Maryland and DC.

Contact us for more information. And to schedule a discovery call. Also, sign up for our client or clinician newsletter!

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emilee wells young

Emilee Young, RDN, LD

I am a Registered Dietitian dedicated to helping those in recovery.  I enjoy helping individuals work towards body acceptance and find food freedom. I am a fat-positive and anti-diet dietitian practicing from an intuitive eating lens. I enjoy working with folks who struggle with binge eating disorder (BED). I serve clients virtually and in person throughout DC and Maryland. Growing up in Virginia, I am passionate about supporting clients throughout the greater areas of Richmond, Virginia Beach, Charlottesville, and Roanoke.

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