By Jessica Brothers, LPC

We want “whole-person” recovery.
While much of the nation’s focus has been on the opioid epidemic, it is also important to highlight that Eating Disorders can be just as harmful. Here in the United States, millions of people are suffering with a Substance Use Disorder, and typically only 10% seek out treatment. The same alarming statistic can be seen with Eating Disorders. The mortality rate for certain substance related deaths have quadrupled in the last decade, however, Eating Disorders continue to have the highest mortality rate of mental health diagnoses. Recent research has shown that not only is there a genetic predisposition for alcohol and substance dependence, but also for eating disorders. In fact, some of the same genes may be involved with both, having similar pathways in the brain. It is important to seek help and treat both. MARR believes it is important to recognize National Eating Disorders Awareness week because of the correlation between substance abuse and eating disorders.

MARR was established in 1975 as a residential service for men. In 1980, the founders added a similar program for women, but wanted to remain gender-separate to cater to the uniqueness of each person. As MARR grew, we found a correlation between women with substance abuse and unhealthy eating behaviors and body image issues. In the early 2000s, MARR’s Disordered Eating (DE) program was created to help educate these women on their co-occurring body image and eating disorders to their use of drugs and alcohol.

Most patients enrolled in our DE program have been previously diagnosed or currently meet subclinical criteria for an Eating Disorder. Though MARR’s primary focus is on substance abuse, it is important to address the disordered eating behaviors to prevent relapse on either. According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, “disordered eating is a disturbed and unhealthy eating pattern that can include restrictive dieting, compulsive eating or skipping meals,” (NEDC,2015). It extends to other behaviors, such as a pattern of excessive dieting including fasting, hiding food, eating in the middle of the night (night eating), self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic use, steroid use, eliminating certain foods or an entire food group from their diet, and compulsive exercise.

Many of our patients have not been active in these DE behaviors recently, as they were more focused on substance use. When their primary coping mechanism, drugs and/or alcohol, is taken away, these unhealthy eating behaviors tend to resurface. As the patient’s relationship with food and body image can become a trigger for their relapse, MARR believes it is critical to address these behaviors and thought patterns to achieve “whole person” recovery.

Generally, 30-40% of the women enrolled in our program participate in our DE Program. These women are provided with additional support; a registered dietitian to help create a healthy eating program, psycho-education groups on DE behaviors, additional weekly groups to address body image, and exploring new coping mechanisms. Because of the extra support, 60-65% of women in the DE Program successfully complete treatment, which is higher than the national average of women completing treatment.

While some patients are able to identify the harmful behaviors associated with their co-occurring disorders, many have not realized the connection between food and body image and their substance use. While at MARR, patients are challenged to explore all issues associated with addictive patterns in order to treat the whole self and support total and lasting recovery.

Disordered Eating and Dieting. (2015)
National Eating Disorders awareness. (2016)