Alcohol and Eating Disorders

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Alcohol use is common among people with mental health issues, including eating disorders. In a clinical sense, alcohol use disorders and eating disorders are entirely separate conditions. However, both conditions share many parallels and risk factors in common that help explain why they tend to co-occur. 

Contact Guardian Recovery today if you are ready to overcome alcohol dependence and an eating disorder. We can help you understand why you’ve been drinking to cope with your body image and emotional distress and find healthier ways of managing both conditions.

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What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are negative eating patterns associated with obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Persons with these conditions struggle with maladaptive eating habits, poor body image, and weight control. In fact, many of these persons also have symptoms similar to those seen in body dysmorphic disorder.

Although these conditions are overwhelmingly predominant among young people who self-identify as female, people of any gender or age can be affected.

Eating disorders come in different forms based on their symptoms. The following are the most commonly seen disorders and how they are affected by alcohol use.

Anorexia Nervosa & Alcohol Use Disorder

Anorexia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening condition characterized by self-imposed starvation, meal avoidance, and severely restricted food intake. Those who struggle with anorexia may also exercise excessively, engage in self-induced vomiting, and overuse diuretics or laxatives. In addition, it is associated with an intense fear of weight gain and a perception of oneself as “fat” despite being clinically underweight.

If you have anorexia and struggle to control your alcohol use, you may have developed your drinking problem in response to the emotional turmoil you experience from your eating disorder. Alcohol is a popular method of coping with stress used by many people with mental health and self-image issues, and anorexia is no exception. However, there are other reasons drinking may seem like a reasonable way to maintain or lose weight.

Alcohol as an Appetite Suppressant

Some research has suggested that alcohol can serve as an effective appetite suppressant. Mild-moderate alcohol use can sometimes increase appetite. However, if you are a chronic drinker, you may be inclined to eat less over time. This is because alcohol interferes with your body’s normal metabolic processes and can cause alcoholic ketoacidosis.

In addition to metabolic disturbances, feelings of fullness accompanying heavy alcohol consumption may discourage you from eating. Likewise, the addiction process causes cravings and alters motivations, shifting your priority from food and nutrition to alcohol use.

After repeated heavy drinking episodes, you may experience weight loss and malnutrition. It’s not uncommon for individuals who go on prolonged binge-drinking sessions to forget to eat for days or weeks. Moreover, resulting symptoms, such as acid reflux and gastrointestinal problems, could directly impair your drinker’s ability to consume food comfortably.

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Risks of Combining Metformin and Alcohol

Bulimia Nervosa & Alcohol Use Disorder

People with bulimia nervosa binge eat and then purge food by vomiting to prevent the calories they consume from contributing to weight gain. If you have bulimia, you might tend to overeat privately, throw it up again, and then feel intense guilt or shame.  

Unlike people with anorexia, those with this disorder are not excessively thin but are still preoccupied with body image and weight. However, people with bulimia drink for similar reasons as those with other eating disorders do, such as for emotional self-medication related to the condition itself or other co-existing mental health issues.

Binge Eating Disorder & Alcohol Use Disorder

Binge eating disorder involves rapid and extreme overeating, usually accompanied by a lack of control and feelings of shame and sadness. Binge eating can be dangerous, depending on how often the person binges and whether the person is active and healthy or significantly overweight. Unlike anorexia or bulimia, binge eating can lead to obesity because this condition does not involve compensatory behaviors like purging. 

If you have a binge eating disorder, you might eat when not hungry and may not even be aware of how much food you consume. And you may eat alone to avoid being embarrassed about your eating habits around others.

The Connect Between Binge Eating & Binge Drinking

A few theories might explain why eating disorders involving binging often co-occur with binge drinking:

  1. Both eating and drinking activate the brain’s reward pathways. This reason is based on our biological reactions to pleasure, but it doesn’t necessarily explain why someone would do either to such a destructive extent.
  2. As previously noted, self-medication is a common reason people drink excessively or overeat. People with these disorders often struggle with underlying mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma.
  3. Also, some research has suggested that there may be a genetic link between eating disorders and alcoholism
  4. Finally, both binge eating and alcoholism have been associated with poor impulse control. For example, one study found that women with bulimia and alcohol use disorder had a higher impulsivity score than those with bulimia alone.

Adverse Interactions Between Alcohol & Eating Disorders

It is widely accepted that eating disorders and alcoholism tend to have risk factors in common. For example, experts believe both conditions can arise from emotional turmoil, such as anxiety and depression, or psychological trauma, such as childhood abuse. Other risk factors include a genetic propensity toward addictive behaviors, low self-esteem, and vulnerability to social pressure. 

Although an eating disorder could arise from alcoholism, it’s much more likely that it would be the other way around. Or, both problems could emerge simultaneously or independently. Unfortunately, if you have an eating disorder and try to self-medicate with alcohol, doing so can be detrimental to your well-being if a dependence develops.

Like virtually everyone, repeatedly using drugs or alcohol can subject you to persistent brain changes that lead to tolerance, dependence, and full-blown addiction. A habit that may innocently start as a way to escape negative feelings can rapidly devolve into a pattern of dysfunctional behavior, with each problem feeding into the other.

To illustrate the problem’s gravity, it is estimated that half of those with eating disorders also use alcohol or illegal drugs, five times the rate of the rest of the population. Furthermore, more than one-third (35%) of alcohol- or drug-dependent individuals have also had eating disorders, 11 times the rate of the rest of the population.

While these numbers are unfortunate, they are also evidence that you are not, by any means, struggling alone. And the good news is that both conditions are very treatable.

How Treatment for Alcohol Dependence & Eating Disorders Can Help

If you have one or both of these disorders, the good news is that you can experience significant improvement. Research has shown that those participating in integrated addiction treatment programs experience higher recovery rates, as both conditions are addressed simultaneously.

For example, failure to treat an eating disorder along with alcohol dependence will likely result in a return to maladaptive eating behaviors—and a greater potential for relapse—following discharge. 

Because similar risk factors, motivations, and overlapping behaviors reinforce and perpetuate each other, these conditions can be challenging to disentangle. Fortunately, comprehensive treatment can effectively address the disorders’ inter-complexities and all aspects of a person’s physical and emotional health and well-being.

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If you or someone you love has an eating disorder and a drinking problem, please know there is help. We urge you to contact Guardian Recovery today for a free, no-obligation health insurance benefits check. Discover how our comprehensive, evidence-based programs can help you break free from these unhealthy and potentially life-threatening behaviors.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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