Eating disorders and substance abuse

eating disorders and substance abuse

During the last weekend in February 2016, I will be attending the UC San Diego 3rd Annual Eating Disorder Conference. I went to their 1st annual conference and was awestruck by the leading researchers I met, the down to earth vibe of the entire conference, and the unbelievable wealth of information I took home. If you are interested in the field of eating disorders, or if you have been affected by them, you should definitely check out the conference here <insert link>.

This year’s conference topic is on the Integrated Treatment of Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders. I am so excited to hear what the newest research is telling us about these cohesive topics. Until I get all the new stuff, here are 4 facts you may not know about between the relationship of eating disorders and substance abuse:

How common are they really?

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, approximately 50% of all people with an eating disorder are abusing alcohol or drugs! That’s a huge number!! That’s 5 times greater than what is seen in the general population.

Risk factors

Here are lists of commonly known risk factors for eating disorders and substance abuse. It is important to note how similar the two are. This has helped treatment providers and researchers in understanding the link between the two, as well as developing more effective treatments.

Information obtained from National Eating Disorders Association and Department of Health, Hawaii websites

Information obtained from National Eating Disorders Association and Department of Health, Hawaii websites

Obviously there are a number of additional risk factors for both of these conditions, but this list is only to highlight the prominent areas where I have noticed a cross-over between the two, both through research and in my office with clients.


Screening for substance abuse and/or dependence is done at every eating disorder treatment facility that I know of, and should be done by every eating disorder specialist in private practice as well. However, research shows that screening for eating disorders is rarely done at substance abuse facilities.

29% of substance abuse programs admit persons with eating disorders, and 48% admit persons with eating disorders of low severity. Few programs attempt to treat eating disorders. (Gordon, et. al., Sep 2008; research conducted on publicly funded addiction treatment programs)

Knowing that it is common to have an eating disorder co-occurring with substance abuse, it would stand to reason that screening should be done by both eating disorder and substance abuse professionals at every level of treatment.


The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) suggests the following tips for getting the appropriate level of treatment for yourself or a loved one who has an eating disorder and is also addicted to one or more substances:

  • Make sure to find an eating disorder specialist who is also skilled at doing assessments for substance abuse and/or dependence.
  • In the case of needing a higher level of care, research the facilities closely to determine whether they are capable of dealing with the specific needs of the patient.

NEDA explains that although most facilities are competent in treating an eating disorder with co-occurring diet pill, laxative, emetic and diuretic abuse, few are equipped to handle those needing medical detoxification and methadone maintenance. It’s all about educating yourself and advocating for the rights, and needs, of the patient.

I will have even more information and updated statistics after the UCSD Conference, but in the mean time, I hope these are helpful to you. If you are struggling with an eating disorder and substance abuse, there is hope! These conditions are commonly seen together and commonly treated together. Like any road to recovery, it will be difficult, but it is also possible.

If you are in the Vancouver, WA or Portland, OR area and looking for help, please contact me using the button below. Together we can get you on the road to living the life you want to live.

The National Eating Disorder Association has available a wealth of information. You can check it out here.

Also, if you are interested in reading more about the screening for eating disorders in non-eating disorder treatment facilities, here is the citation for that article:

Gordon, S.M., Johnson, J.A., Greenfield, S.F., Cohen, L., Killeen, T., & Roman, P.M., (Sep 2008). Assessment and treatment of co-occurring eating disorders in publicly funded addiction treatment programs. Psychiatric services, 59(9), 1056-1059.


Tamara Werner

Tamara Werner is a counselor, author, speaker, and activist. Her private practice, Get Centered Counseling in Vancouver WA, helps women with food and body issues learn to love themselves, their body, their life, and their relationships. Her life’s work is steeped in personal experience, having fifteen years in recovery for anorexia, in addition to being a breast cancer survivor. An up and coming force in the counseling community, Tamara has been published in a textbook called Treatment Strategies for Substance and Process Addictions, and has sat on a panel at the American Counseling Association Conference, where she spoke to her peers on strategies and tools to use with clients struggling with eating disorders. Having a deep, personal understanding of what it takes to recover from this condition, she seeks to be an example to those she treats, to let them know that recovery is possible.