Conference Links Food, Drugs, Drinking

In fact, according to outgoing CASA president, Joseph A. Califano, Jr. it's not unusual for non-eating disorder patients to turn to binge eating during substance abuse treatment and early recovery anyway, so counselors need to be especially aware of the prevalence of both problems.

"All women entering a substance abuse program should be screened for an eating disorder and vice versa," agrees Terence Williams, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Still, Williams is not sold on the hypothesis that eating disorders and substance abuse are necessarily linked.

Superficial Similarities?

There are superficial similarities, such as craving and lack of control, he says, but it's dangerous to lump all eating disorders in one category, since there are major differences in the characteristics of anorexics, who starve themselves, compared to bulimics who binge eat. Additionally, because the treatment model for addiction focuses narrowly on the substance, a regular addiction treatment program will not help someone with an eating disorder deal with her body image and self-evaluation issues, Williams says.

The NIMH's Hyman admits the connection is "an unproven hypothesis," but believes that further gene research will lead to the link. In the meantime, he says, it's critical to raise awareness and intervention among counselors so that people seeking treatment get appropriate help. "We're not going to succeed by picking out a single target at a time," he said.

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