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Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

AnorexiaIs there a relationship between eating disorders and substance abuse? At least one study, known as “Food for Thought – Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders,” shows that up to 50 percent of individuals with an eating disorder also abuse alcohol or illicit drugs, as opposed to nine percent of the general population. On the flip side of this, up to 35 percent of alcohol or illicit drug abusers have eating disorders, while the figure for the general public with eating disorders is only three percent. This study, by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) contains a number of interesting figures linking the two issues.


The study implies that for many young people anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are connected with smoking, binge drinking, and illicit drug use. It’s a warning sign to parents, teachers and health professionals that if you encounter someone with eating disorders you should also look for substance abuse problems, and vice versa. The report proposes a list of substances that are used to suppress the appetite and increase metabolism, allowing the young person to get rid of calories she or he considers excessive, as well as to self-medicate negative emotions: alcohol, amphetamines, caffeine, cocaine, diuretics, emetics, and heroin.

The report found that only 15 percent of girls are actually overweight, although 40 percent of girls in grades one through five, and 62 percent of teenage girls, are attempting to lose weight. How do these girls decide that they need to lose weight? There may be a number of factors at work here, from family and friends to the media, where women’s magazines contain ten times as many ads and articles about weight loss than men’s magazines, and that depict models who are on average about 5’11” tall, weighing in at 117 pounds, while an average for the American woman actually tends to be 5’4″ tall and 140 pounds.

More facts from the study suggest that girls in middle school (10 to 14 years old) who diet more than once a week will be four times as likely to become smokers, that girls with eating disorder symptoms are four times as likely to use inhalants and cocaine; and 12.6 percent of female high school students take diet pills, powders or liquids in order to control their weight without a doctor’s advice.

People with eating disorders seem to share common risk factors; there’s a common brain chemistry and/or family history. There’s low self esteem, depression, anxiety, or impulsiveness. There may be a history of sexual or physical abuse. There are unhealthy behaviors of the parents coupled with low monitoring of children’s activities, as well as an unhealthy susceptibility to peer norms and social pressures.

It’s not a problem confined to young girls alone, too; approximately one million men and boys have an eating disorder as well, with gay and bisexual males at an increased risk.

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