Types of Eating Disorders and Similarities With Addiction

woman looking away

Eating disorders aren’t always obvious. People who are struggling have a wide range of body types and may work to hide their behaviour and symptoms. There is also a misconception that eating disorders are experienced only by women and caused solely by superficial concerns. While these are myths, one thing is true: people with eating disorders deserve compassion and understanding. Here, we explore various types of eating disorders and their symptoms.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are behavioural disorders characterized by unhealthy behavioural and thought patterns related to food, eating, and one’s own body weight and body image. The results of these thoughts and behaviours can be harmful to one’s physical health, including binge eating, purging, food restriction, and excessive exercise. In severe cases, eating disorders can be deadly.

quote about how the most known and misunderstood eating disorder is anorexia nervosa

Individuals with eating disorders often base their self-worth on their weight or body image. They often have other concurrent mental health disorders, including substance use disorders, trauma, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

There are different kinds of eating disorders each with their own behaviours and symptoms.

Anorexia Nervosa

Perhaps the most well-known and most misunderstood eating disorder, anorexia nervosa affects up to 1% of Canadians. Individuals with anorexia severely restrict their food and caloric intake due to their intense fear of gaining weight or their need to feel that they have control over their bodies. Despite having dangerously low weight, patients with anorexia see themselves as being overweight. The extreme caloric restriction results in dangerous weight loss, interrupts women’s menstrual cycles, and can have numerous other negative health consequences. Some individuals also engage in excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, and diuretic or laxative use. In some cases, anorexia can result in death.

Binge Eating Disorder

Individuals with binge eating disorders regularly eat abnormally large quantities of high-caloric foods in short periods of time. As a result, they become overweight and have a higher risk of developing heart disease and metabolic disorders. Individuals with binge eating disorder often have psychological problems such as depression, shame, and low self-esteem.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa affects up to 3% of Canadians. Individuals with bulimia go through periods of binge eating, after which they purge the food that they have eaten. Most commonly, they do this through self-induced vomiting. Similar to individuals with anorexia, the self-esteem of individuals with bulimia very strongly depends on their body weight or body image. They often experience health problems due to their frequent self-induced vomiting, including tooth decay and damage to their esophagus.

Avoidant/ Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (or ARFID) involves limiting the amount and/or types of food one eats, sometimes based on certain smells, tastes, and textures. Unlike anorexia, ARFID does not involve distress around body shape or size. However, it can result in severe energy and growth deficiencies, as well as, weight loss or failure to gain weight.


Pica is characterized by the persistent consumption of non-food items over a period of at least a month. This may include paper, soap, cloth, hair, string, wool, soil, chalk, talcum powder, paint, gum, metal, pebbles, charcoal or coal, ash, clay, starch, or ice. Many young children may eat non-nutritive, non-food substances or put them in their mouths. This is normal behaviour and may not be a sign of pic, however, if this behaviour occurs later in life, it should be addressed.

Rumination Disorder

Rumination is the consistent regurgitation of chewed and/or partially digested food over a period of at least a month. Regurgitated food may be re-chewed, re-swallowed, or spit out. Previously swallowed food is brought up into the mouth effortlessly, without any signs of gagging, nausea, or distress. Rumination can also be a symptom of anorexia or bulimia.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders

This condition describes symptoms of a feeding or eating disorder which cause distress and impairment in functioning. However, it may not meet the criteria of any of the above eating disorders or there is not enough information for a clinician to make a diagnosis.

Can an Eating Disorder be an Addiction?

Binge-eating and compulsive use of addictive substances often function through the same neurotransmitter systems and regions in the brain. Sugar and dopamine-enhancing stimulant drugs (e.g. cocaine or amphetamine) show strong similarities in their motivational mechanisms. On the other hand, sugar and opioids appear to have strong similarities in their reward mechanisms. Attempts to treat binge eating using pharmacological interventions have demonstrated further similarities and relationships. However, they have also revealed that, compared to addictive drugs, it seems likely that the brain’s motivation and reward processing in response to ingesting food is significantly more complex.

quotes about binge eating and how it affects the brain

However, while acknowledging that eating disorders share some similarities with addictions, Bellwood Psychiatrist, Dr. Kalam Sutandar, recognizes some key differences.

She says, “So some people would frame an eating disorder like an addiction, and in the way that I think it’s different is that, for many people, what they need to do with addiction is they need to learn how to abstain. However, you can’t abstain from eating. You always have to be eating food. So, that’s a different thing in terms of how you treat an eating disorder.

Get Comprehensive Eating Disorder Treatment in Toronto

The most effective treatment programs for eating disorders are personalized according to an individual’s unique needs and provide integrated treatment for their concurrent addictions and mental health disorders.

Recovery doesn’t have to happen alone. EHN Canada is proud to offer intensive, caring inpatient treatment at our Toronto facility, Bellwood Health Services, for adults and youth.

We have supportive, caring staff ready to support every step of the recovery journey. In addition to supporting a return to normalized eating, we focus on supporting the mental health of both our patients and their families.

Public Eating Disorder Treatment is Severely Underfunded

Although we may not realize it, we may each know someone who is quietly struggling with an eating disorder. Canada is currently experiencing an unprecedented demand for comprehensive eating disorder treatment, but funding that’s been earmarked for this treatment is not getting to healthcare professionals and patients who need it.

By writing to your local MP and the Minister of Health, you can make a difference for yourself, a loved one, or the approximately 1 million Canadians suffering from eating disorders.

quote about the reality of eating disorders and how we may already know someone experiencing one.

Please consider writing to your representative to share your experience with eating disorders and encourage them to deploy proper public funding for timely, effective, and safe eating disorders treatment. With your help, comprehensive eating disorder treatment can become more widely accessible to those who are in dire need.

Recovery is possible. We can help.

Struggling with an eating disorder, drug or alcohol addiction, depression, anxiety, trauma or other mental health disorder? You can begin your recovery journey at our facilities across Canada and through virtual programs. Find out more about what we treat.

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