Is Overeating Increasing Your Risk for Substance Abuse?

When it comes to delicious foods, just about everyone cannot resist the temptation to overeat. But problems arise when overeating becomes the norm or if you’re engaging in compulsive or emotional eating.

Not only does this lead to obesity and distress about body image, but it also increases the risk of substance abuse. Compulsive overeating, emotional eating, and binge eating are signs of an eating disorder and often co-occur with drug or alcohol abuse.

What Is Overeating?

You’re overeating if you’re eating more than the daily Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for your age, gender, height, and weight. Your relationship with food becomes unhealthy when you eat compulsively and excessively out of an addiction to food or it turns into an eating disorder, like binge-eating disorder, bulimia, or anorexia. 

Overeating Causes or Triggers

Some people overeat because food gives them an emotional high. Other reasons or triggers for excessive food intake include:

  • Stress
  • Disappointment or embarrassment
  • Boredom
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Emotional pain, e.g., from a breakup
  • Health problems
  • Social pressure
  • Food addiction (also linked to binge-eating)

Excessive food consumption to cope with problems is referred to as emotional eating. It’s common for people to feel guilt or shame after a binge, regardless of the underlying reasons. They’re also faced with potential health risks.

Overeating and Eating Disorders

Overeating is not a disorder by itself. However, compulsive eating and binge eating are considered eating disorders since they involve some type of food or eating addiction.

Compulsive Overeating

Compulsive overeating essentially means frequently eating more than you need (chronic overeating), even when you’re not hungry. Binges at least two times a week for several months meet the definition of compulsive overeating.

Compulsive overeating is usually diagnosed as Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED). It does not meet the criteria for binge eating disorder, as outlined in the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The Manual is a diagnostic guide mental health professionals use to diagnose psychiatric conditions.

Binge Eating

On the other hand, binge eating involves consuming a large amount of food in one sitting within a short space of time. It’s similar to the concept of binge drinking alcohol. Binge eating becomes a disorder when you eat larger amounts of food than you need or would normally be served during a meal.

Eating habits may be compulsive and out of control. Binges at least once a week for three months qualify as Binge Eating Disorder (BED). An estimated 1.25% of adult women and 0.42% of adult men in the US have BED.

The Link Between Overeating and Substance Abuse

Compulsive overeating and binge eating are seen as a gateway to alcohol and drug abuse. A person may turn to these addictive substances if food no longer provides emotional relief or as an alternative way to cope. Substance cravings and food cravings are linked to the same dopamine reward system in the brain. Furthermore, studies confirm the link between binge eating and substance use disorders (SUDs).

What Is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse refers to excessive use of a drug or alcohol in a way that is harmful to self, society, or both. The behavior impairs the person’s work, school, family, or social life.

Commonly abused substances include alcohol, nicotine, and illegal drugs (such as heroin and cocaine), and prescription medications, like opioids.

Uncontrolled and untreated substance abuse can lead to a SUD, also known as addiction. At this stage, substance abuse has transitioned into a brain disease and is marked by compulsive seeking and using of the addictive substance. Another issue is trouble controlling use or quitting without help.

Physical and/or psychological dependence on the substance needs to be established in order to diagnose substance addiction. Another sign of addiction is withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking or using the substance involved.

Dangers of Substance Abuse

In addition to overeating as a coping mechanism, people abuse drugs or alcohol to experience euphoria or escape life stressors. However, excessive or harmful use of addictive substances poses a long list of adverse effects depending on the type of substance used. They include physical, psychological, cognitive, behavioral, financial, social, and legal consequences.

Long-term drinking or drug use can affect organs such as the kidneys, liver, lungs, and heart. Chronic or life-threatening diseases may also develop including cirrhosis of the liver. These substances change brain chemistry and affect the way you think, behave, or make decisions. You may lose close relationships, or get into trouble with the law.

The psychological effects can lead to the development of mental issues, such as anxiety, depression, or other types of eating disorders such as anorexia or Bulimia. Substance abuse may also worsen symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions.

Treatment for Substance Abuse and Overeating

Different levels of substance abuse treatment are available for those affected by mild, moderate, or severe drug or alcohol abuse. The level of severity guides treatment specialists on whether to conduct treatment at an inpatient or outpatient rehab. While your length of stay may vary, a treatment program is recommended for anyone struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.

Some clients fit the criteria to receive dual diagnosis treatment. The goal of dual diagnosis is to treat both the eating disorder and substance abuse.

Types of treatments, therapies, and programs include Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), 12-step programs, and community support groups such as Overeaters Anonymous. Individuals diagnosed with moderate to severe SUD often require detox prior to receiving mental health therapy. In this case, therapy will be tailored to help you manage compulsive eating or binge eating.

Detox: Some individuals require the removal of drugs or alcohol from their bodies before therapy. This medical withdrawal process is done under the supervision of a doctor. The doctor may administer medications to help you manage withdrawal symptoms. Detox helps eliminate physical dependence.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy: CBT offers a chance to break the cycles of food obsession and substance abuse. You’ll learn how to manage thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that trigger compulsive food and drug use behaviors.

Other therapy options include family therapy and holistic therapy, such as yoga, art, and meditation.

Overeaters Anonymous (OA): Overeaters Anonymous is a fellowship similar to groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). OA offers you or your loved one an opportunity to meet and share your personal stories related to uncontrolled eating. The group follows the Twelve-Steps principles to help members manage their relationship with food and avoid substance abuse.

You’re not alone if you feel powerless to control eating habits that lead to substance use. Know that it’s possible to create a healthy relationship with food through therapy and involvement in community support.

Sources – Eating Disorder Signs & Symptoms – Definition and Applications – Recommended Dietary Allowances – 8 Things Binge Eating Disorder Does to Your Body – What Is the Evidence for “Food Addiction?” A Systematic Review – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) – Definition & Facts for Binge Eating Disorder – The Overlap Between Binge Eating Disorder and Substance Use Disorders: Diagnosis and Neurobiology – Substance Abuse – Clinical Methods – Health and Behavioral Risks of Alcohol and Drug Use – Mental Health Effects – 30 Day Inpatient Rehab -1 Overview, Essential Concepts, and Definitions in Detoxification – Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment

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