“To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.”

With those words, Simone De Beauvoir identified one of the most devastating aspects of eating disorders: the way in which they undermine one’s sense of self.

Individuals who struggle with eating disorders engage in extreme dieting, food restriction, bingeing, and purging. These behaviors wreak havoc on physical health as well as mental and emotional stability.

After all, when you feel compelled to deprive your body of the nourishment it needs to function properly, it’s tough to feel safe within your own skin.

What are nature of eating disorders, and how do they overlap with addiction? Is there any hope? How do I get started on a healing process?

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions. Examples include:

  • Anorexia, characterized by abnormally low weight, fear of gaining weight, and unhealthily restricting food
  • Bulimia, which includes binge eating (overeating) and then purging (vomiting) as a dysfunctional weight-control tactic. Variations of this behavior, such as chewing and spitting, are also significant and problematic.
  • Binge-eating disorder, which involves compulsive overeating
  • Orthorexia, a fixation on “righteous” eating, or a compulsive need to eat only foods that are considered “clean”

Eating Disorder Warning Signs

According the NEDA (The National Eating Disorders Association), some emotional eating disorder warning signs include:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Dresses in layers to hide weight loss or stay warm
  • Is preoccupied with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting
  • Refuses to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food (e.g., no carbohydrates, etc.)
  • Makes frequent comments about feeling “fat” or overweight despite weight loss
  • Complains of constipation, abdominal pain, cold intolerance, lethargy, and/or excess energy
  • Denies feeling hungry
  • Appears uncomfortable eating around others

Physical warning signs include:

  • Noticeable fluctuations in weight, both up and down
  • Stomach cramps, other non-specific gastrointestinal complaints (constipation, acid reflux, etc.)
  • Menstrual irregularities — missing periods or only having a period while on hormonal contraceptives (this is not considered a “true” period)
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Abnormal laboratory findings (anemia, low thyroid and hormone levels, low potassium, low white and red blood cell counts)
  • Dizziness, especially upon standing
  • Fainting/syncope
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Sleep problems

Go here to see the full list of eating disorder warning signs.

The Link Between Eating Disorders and Addiction

According to the NEDA, “Nearly 50% of individuals with an eating disorder are also abusing drugs and/or alcohol, a rate 5 times greater than what is seen in the general population.”

That’s an astonishing statistic! Clearly, there’s significant overlap between eating disorders and substance abuse.

One reason for this is that bingeing on high-fat, high-sugar food engages powerful reward centers in the brain … as do drug and alcohol abuse.

However, the two conditions aren’t completely analogous.

“The brain mechanisms associated with eating disorders and addiction don’t exactly overlap, and a binge eater or bulimic can’t quit food cold turkey the way an alcoholic or a drug addict can sober up,” writes journalist Ella Quittner in her Health magazine feature, Are Eating Disorders a Form of Substance Abuse?

Yet eating disorders and drug addiction both represent dysfunctional attempts to deal with unresolved mental and emotional pain.

As Dr. Richard Friedman, a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City noted in What Do Cookies and Meth Have In Common? The Neuroscience of Addiction:

“[People who abuse food and drugs] are feeling various forms of psychic pain, from which they would like to escape. [Drugs are] a sort of self-medication attempt to deal with painful states of emotion and thinking. The problem is, it’s not a very good solution because often the solution … creates another problem.”

Are Eating Disorders Addictions?

Perhaps you’re wondering, Are eating disorders addictions in and of themselves? That’s a great question, and the short answer is: possibly. Mental health and medical experts are debating the topic, using new research to explore and illuminate the nature of addiction itself.

Certainly it’s possible to look at binge eating disorder as an addiction to food, or anorexia as an addiction to a state of near-starvation. However, it’s also possible to misread symptoms of malnourishment as indicative of addiction.

According to Are Eating Disorders Addictions?, a paper by Dr. Karin Jasper published on the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) website, “A very important consideration in seeing eating disorders as addictions is [that] some of the psychological and physiological effects of dieting and starvation … may appear to be symptoms of addiction.”

Healing from Eating Disorders

In Spiritual Psychology (the holistic healing approach we utilize at our non 12 Step rehab), an eating disorder is considered a physical manifestation of an emotional wound.

What does that mean? It means that your eating disorder is a way of externalizing emotional pain. It’s a painful, debilitating demonstration of how you feel within your own mind and heart.

Often people think that eating disorders equal powerlessness. However, you can also see them as evidence that you’re actually a very powerful creator. You’ve created an external condition that reflects your internal conflict and pain.

At some point, you made a very strong – though perhaps subconscious – connection between your weight and your self-worth. You’re fighting tooth and nail to hold on to the dysfunctional behavior that gives you a sense of control over your weight.

The good news is, you can rebuild your sense of self-worth without the unhealthy dieting, food restrictions, and bingeing behaviors.

How? By going back in time to the moment you began to equate weight with self-worth.

You can learn to question your judgments, projections, and limiting beliefs, re-framing your thoughts in a more compassionate way. You can use the mind-body connection to speed your recovery.

You can also work with your addict aspect, as well as the traumatized parts of yourself that keep you stuck in self-defeating behaviors.

You can learn self-counseling strategies that allow you to offer compassion to these wounded parts.

If you want to live life free from food obsession, start by working with the underlying core issues that led you to restrict and abuse food in the first place.

That way, you can create a healthy relationship with food and your body going forward. You can befriend yourself, building confidence in both your body and your spirit.