Eating Disorders = Addiction?

I started out, back when I first met ED, being offended by people who subscribed to the "addiction model" of causation. I think I thought of addictions as creepy and having a lot to do with lack of will. I've known people whose lives were trashed by "substances" - I was angered by them and their inability to pull out no matter what happened. And I was so proud of those who pulled themselves out.

I think I also couldn't cope with people looking at my daughter as an addict.

Over time I had to change my thinking. But not about eating disorders - about addiction. I realize now, watching people with addictions and people with eating disorders that they are experiencing something awfully similar. It seems clear that addiction isn't a lack of will, and recovery is not simply a matter of wanting it enough.

I don't know whether I believe in the addiction model, and I'm seriously skeptical about 12-step treatment, but clearly it is a conversation we all should be having.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Laura.

    I am an alcoholic and also have an eating disorder. AA has helped saved my life and becoming sober has gotten me to the point where I can start addressing my ED (which is much older). OA is not for me, though.

    The number of substance-dependent women I know who have also experienced EDs is very high. This article is very interesting.

    If you ever want to talk about addiction, I'd be glad to talk with you.

    Thanks for the wonderful work you do. It's so important.

  2. Thank YOU, Sarah.

    I suspect we will learn a great deal about addictions FROM the ED research, and the other way around, too. There is so much to learn about the brain and how it interacts with life!

  3. Lots of studies have looked at how to overcome addictions. My impression is they might support the "no compromise -- food is medicine" approach to treating anorexia. Kind of like the only way to overcome nicotine addiction: stop smoking -- no compromise. At first it is rough, with tons of anxiety, but it's the only way. All the talk in the world about why the person began smoking in the first place will not break the addiction.

  4. The experience of having an ED definitely changed the way I felt about addiction. Not only did I learn how it felt to be at the mercy of my own messed-up neurochemistry and essentially unable to control it, but I also learned how it felt to be stigmatized. I learned what it was like to have a problem that I felt responsible for and ashamed of. After I began treatment for the ED I became much less judgmental of addicts, or at least less convinced of my own superiority over them.

    And yet part of me still accepts the stigma. I've been fully medically/behaviorally recovered for 5 years, and still haven't quite gotten over the shame part of it.

    The research articles you've posted have helped me a lot with that, though. Thanks.

  5. I have both eating disorders and alcoholism on both sides of my family, and I think the evidence for some genetic predisposition is very strong. I actually wrote a term paper on that topic for a medical anthropology class last semester, the research really opened my eyes and gave me a few 'light bulb moments' about my own experiences.

    There is an interesting book called "Endorphins, Eating Disorders, and Other Addictive Behaviors" by Hans Huebner that does a really good job of laying out the basics behind how ED behaviors can become so addictive, the compulsions are often truly neurological. Some of the treatment recommendations in the book are dated, but it is still definitely worth a read.

  6. I do believe there are addictive qualities to eating disorders, chemicals your body releases when you are starving or bingeing and purging and psychological side which lets the ed act as a safety net.

    But I have a friend who hates ed's referred to as addictions.


  7. I'm glad to see the addiction and ED similarities being addressed. I've met several anorexics who self-righteously believe that they're "better" than alcoholics. I've actually heard anorexics say that they have a "real" disease while alcoholics "choose" to be drunk. They remind me of the rich people who abuse prescription drugs yet turn their noses down on poor people who abuse crack. It pisses me off.

    As much as I try to stand up for anorexics who were raised by dysfunctional families, I think I have a weird resentment against them. Some of them seem to have this haughty "I'm better than everyone" attitude. Maybe I'm just biased because I'm a thrower upper and not a starver. At any rate I'm glad to see the addiction conversation happening. It's progress.


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