Est 5 min read
Did you know there is a link between substance/alcohol use disorder and eating disorders?
NationalEatingdisorders.org says that up to 50% of the time, individuals with eating disorders use alcohol or illicit drugs, and that's a rate that's five times higher than the general population. The flip side of that is up to 35% of people who are dependent on alcohol or substances (people who have substance use disorders), also have eating disorders. That's a rate that's 11 times greater than the general population.
What does this statistic tell us? People who have disordered eating or an eating disorder tend to struggle more with substance use disorder, and people who have substance use disorder tend to struggle more with food challenges. I've absolutely seen this in my practice, I would say probably 80% of the people who work with me are also in recovery from alcohol or substance use disorder.
For many of my clients, after they got sober or began recovery from alcohol and substance use disorder, they struggled a lot more with food. Most often, when we dig into it, we find that their food challenges started way before their issues with alcohol and substances. Often, they flipped between the two. For some people, it was happening at the same time. They would be drinking a lot then their eating became more problematic, either more restrictive or more binge episodes, whatever the case, may be.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Typically, people who have substance or alcohol use disorder have a much higher rate of adverse childhood experiences. You can take the ACE study here, if you're curious about what your numbers are, that's a pretty good predictor for a higher risk of alcohol and/or substance use disorder, disordered eating, and other health issues; even a higher rate of heart disease and cancer.
Also, if you're having challenges with substances, usually, it's because you have other trauma or some other sort of issues, but even using alcohol and substances in a way that feels like numbing out or problematic, that in itself is traumatic. When you're trying to heal from something traumatic, and you have to take away the thing that you've been using to calm or soothe your nervous systems, you're much more likely to need to use something else to do that. You will find yourself often soothing using food or trying to control or manage food or your body in order to feel better. It’s a way of coping through this shock to your nervous system from the removal of the substances that you've been used to using, and that's really common.
If you are in recovery from alcohol and/or substance use and food is really becoming a challenge for you, I do recommend getting support. It's hard to have challenges in both of those areas at once so It can be helpful to have someone to guide you. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that the work that you're doing around healing and recovery from alcohol and substances actually applies to your relationship with food as well and vice versa. It’s important to get down to the core of what drove those behaviors. Start to heal the underlying trauma. Then begin to learn how to tune into your body. Work on allowing and accepting your feelings and the sensations that are present in your body.
I highly recommend getting support around food from an Intuitive Eating professional. Focusing on developing a non-restrictive plan for working on your relationship with food in your body. Restricting food is very different from being abstinent from alcohol or substances. You need food to survive and you have to eat multiple times a day, every day, your entire life. With alcohol and substances, you don't have to have them in your life. But trying to control, manage, restrict, or abstain from food is very different in that it actually increases your desire for food. It’s the forbidden fruit kind of idea. And research shows that when you restrict sugar, it will actually taste better when you've been restricting it. Your body is wired to try to increase your desire for those foods, especially if you're in an energy deficit, you're going to really crave food. That's going to set you up for that restrict, binge, shame spiral. It's really important to eat in a way that is non-restrictive, but learn how to eat in a way that's attuned to your body.
It's also really important to get enough nutrients and make sure that you're really giving yourself enough when you're going through recovery from alcohol and substances. You may think that you eat plenty, but I find that people actually aren't feeding themselves regularly. When people come to work with me they often don't eat much all day and they have primal hunger at night. One of the things that can be really helpful is simply eating consistent meals every 3-4 hours, especially when you're first in recovery. Focus on what you're putting in rather than taking anything out. Eat things that have protein, fat, carbs, and some fiber to them, making sure you're getting really rounded, balanced meals consistently throughout the day. Focus on other things that will contribute to rest and healing, like taking supplements, and sleeping well. Address any pain that you're having. Make sure you're getting support to learn how to be able to sit with your emotions and work on healing that underlying trauma.
I hope this was helpful in understanding the connection between alcohol and/or substance use disorder and disordered eating. If you have any questions or would like any support, this is an area that I'm really comfortable supporting people in because I myself am in long-term recovery from alcohol and substances. I've been Alcohol and Substance-Free since June of 1998. So when I'm recording this, I'm coming up on 24 years abstinent. I've also healed my relationship with food in my body. I've been there. I know how challenging and painful it can be, but also how beautiful and rewarding it can be to heal. I'd like to support you with that. If you would like any support or you have questions, comments, or feedback for me my email is Tiffany@CoachTiffanyrn.com.
Download your free hunger scale now!
The first step to healing our relationship with food is reconnecting with the signals our body gives us. One of the ways to do that is by checking in with your hunger before you eat. Here's my spin on the traditional hunger scale.