Eating and drinking: the complicated relationship between alcohol and disordered eating

English | Cymraeg

Dr Jacinta Tan and Gemma Johns | September 2019 | 7 minutes

What happens when someone’s chaotic eating and drinking patterns are tangled up in each other?

Food and drink. It’s basic. What could be simpler? Except that it’s not. We know from digging through the data, and from sitting and listening to people with alcohol misuse problems and people with eating disorders, that there’s a complicated relationship between alcohol use and disordered eating. And that relationship can be very different for different people.

As part of our recent research we found that people who are dependent on alcohol, or in early recovery from very heavy drinking, often report unhealthy eating behaviours – particularly undereating. Dependent drinkers often say that they find food to be less important to them than alcohol. They don’t set out to avoid food; it just becomes less of a priority. They might deem spending money on food less important to keeping it to buy alcohol. They might also see their interest in food declining, or not feel the need to eat. For some, food exists in their minds as a component of loving and social relationships. If those relationships aren’t there – and they often aren’t for dependent drinkers – eating on their own can feel pointless and miserable. On a more positive note, drinkers told us that renewing caring social relationships around eating could well help them to eat much more healthily – that finding a new relationship with food, through sociable eating, could help to fill the void left when they decided to stop drinking.

Our research indicates that alcohol misuse amongst people receiving treatment for eating disorders is much more common than previously thought.

People who have an eating disorder say they misuse alcohol for various purposes. They tell us that they use alcohol to support their eating disorders: to suppress appetite, manage their emotions, promote binging and/or purging episodes, and to encourage exercise. Our research indicates that alcohol misuse amongst people receiving treatment for eating disorders is much more common than previously thought.

On their own, alcohol misuse and disordered eating can each undermine a person’s physical and mental health. Going through both these problems together is especially difficult. In spite of this, staff working in both alcohol and eating disorder services report little knowledge of the relationship between eating and drinking. To better understand this relationship, we recommend that alcohol and eating disorder services work more closely together to better support this at-risk population. And that’s what we’re working to achieve.

Dr Jacinta Tan and Gemma Johns from Aneurin Bevan Health Board (both previously Swansea University’s School of Medicine) will be discussing their research at Alcohol Change UK’s conference at Wrexham Glyndŵr University on 18 September 2019: Alcohol and everything else: What to do when drinking isn’t the only issue.