Avoiding the Whack-a-Mole Eating Disorder Game

carnival eating disorder whack a mole

Eating disorder treatment is not a game.


I’ve never liked the carnival game whack-a-mole. Bashing heads with a cartoon hammer while an endless succession of new rodents appears. It is too stressful and unpredictable. But I could relate when a friend in recovery said they thought eating disorders, popping up during addiction treatment, reminded them of playing whack-a-mole. Because just when you think you’ve pounded down the substance use disorder (SUD) that was taking over your life, an unexpected eating disorder (ED) might come to the fore.


And it’s hard to talk about. When you have a binge or binge-purge disorder, it does not come up in polite conversation. But it should, especially during group therapy in an addiction treatment center. According to the National Library of Medicine, as high as 50% of those with eating disorders have co-occurring SUDs. And 35% of people with SUD also have an eating disorder. Sandford Behavioral Health offers our residential eating disorder treatment program to help you start healing. To learn more about this and our other programs, contact us at 616.202.3326 today.


Eating Disorders Affect Men and Women

Eating disorders and SUDs do not always present at the same time. One may flare up while the other is at bay or appear without forewarning. And for those battling alcohol or drug addiction, dormant eating disorders can resurface when least expected, just like whack-a-mole. While eating disorders can affect men and women of all ages, they are most commonly seen in young adults.


Eating disorders include binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa. Eating disorders can be challenging to treat since they may involve underlying mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. But eating disorder treatment programs can help you regain control over your eating habits and overcome the negative thoughts and behaviors that keep you stuck in an unhealthy cycle.


scted bedroom + kitchen eating disorder treatment

Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders residential treatment bedroom and clinical kitchen.


Types of Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa

It is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Its symptoms include refusing to maintain body weight, fear of getting “fat,” extreme focus on shape and body weight, and losing menstrual periods. Orthorexia is an addiction to exercise or “clean eating.” Anorexia/Orthorexia is not usually co-occurring with a SUD. Both are characterized by the need to control. This is not a characteristic of a substance use disorder.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is more commonly co-occurring with SUD. Bulimics eat excessive amounts of food in short periods. After the binge, they purge the calories by vomiting, taking laxatives, or excessively exercising. Symptoms include:

  • Eating beyond comfortable fullness
  • Lack of control
  • Frequent dieting or fasting
  • Extreme concern with weight
  • Misuse of laxatives, diet pills, and diuretics

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating is commonly co-occurring with SUD. B or compulsive overeating is characterized by uncontrolled continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full. Symptoms may include fasting or yo-yo dieting, feelings of shame or self-hatred, and changes in body weight or severe obesity.


How to Treat an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are severe mental health conditions, but effective treatments are available. Professionals use various approaches to treating eating disorders, including talk therapy, nutrition education, dietary counseling, and systemic family therapy.

  • Talk therapy – Many eating disorder treatment programs offer individual and group therapy sessions to help you explore and address the underlying causes of your eating disorder.
  • Nutrition education – Nutrition education is integral to eating disorder recovery, as poor eating habits often accompany eating disorders. A dietician or nutritionist can guide healthy eating habits, meal planning, eating disorder recovery, and other vital topics.
  • Dietary counseling – Dietary counseling can help you adopt a sensible eating plan to get back on track with your eating habits. This may include specific dietary recommendations, eating guidelines, meal plans, and recipes.
  • Systemic family therapy – Family therapy can help you address the underlying obeying the “Don’t do this!” and “Be careful about that!” eating disorder messages and re-learn eating in a healthy, positive way.

Don’t lose hope if you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder. There are effective treatments available.


Treating SUD and Eating Disorders Together

I have had the privilege of working with Gail Hall, LMSW, DCSW, and CEDS-S. Gail is a therapist specializing in eating disorders and Executive Director of Sanford ComComprehensiveeatment for Eating Disorders (Sanford CTED). She has a lot to say about eating impulse control. Gail Hall tells us that eating disorders are a coping mechanism for anxiety and depression.


Coping Mechanisms for Anxiety and Depression

“Unlike a substance use disorder, a person can’t quit eating. So, we must separate eating from the disorder and deal with the continuous barrage of potential triggers.”–Gail Hall, LMSW, DCSW, CEDS-S Sanford CTED.


And like substance misuse and addiction, there is often a genetic factor. Eating disorders run in families. Gail says people can fully recover from an eating disorder with new associations and tools to address underlying stressors.


We believe that the best treatment for an eating disorder involves a team of professionals providing a combination of approaches. The eating behavior is only a symptom of an underlying emotional conflict. However, it does need to be directly addressed as new and healthier coping mechani.sms are being learned.”–Gail Hall, LMSW, DCSW, CEDS-S


In therapy, Gail challenges the “food rules” her clients invent. She also addresses “fear of food” by taking her clients to a fast-food restaurant. While there, she asks them to find something on the bill of fare to eat. For some, just entering a hamburger joint creates anxiety. And since eating disorders are often secretive and marked by shame and guilt, Gail encourages her clients to begin to explore the social aspects of eating.


“It’s not about abstinence from food. It’s about abstinence from addictive behaviors.”–Gail Hall, LMSW, DCSW, CEDS-S.


Sandford Behavioral Health’s residential eating disorder treatment program blends evidence-based therapies with holistic approaches to create a customized recovery plan just for you. Our eating disorder treatment program offers various services, including individual and group counseling, nutritional planning, and mental health support. With the right treatment and support, you can overcome eating disorders and start living your best life.​


Finding Treatment

Treating oneself to sugary or processed foods is tempting for those in treatment or early recovery from a substance use disorder. After all, when you are forgoing alcohol or other drugs, it feels like you deserve to indulge in something. Suddenly, food tastes good again, days seem long, and you’re hungry—however, education dopamine rush from those processed snacks. Education is vital in managing eating disorders.


An important part of healing is the introduction of healthy foods. And Gail believes that education is paramount to developing healthy habits. But unfortunately, until the obsession with body type and the societal requirements to look a certain way are changed, there will continue to be eating disorders.


Gail looks to parents and schools to guide children and teenagers. However, she feels there is an inappropriate focus on thinking “thin.” This causes undue pressure and anxiety, and she intends to change things. She says it’s a difficult job, but she’s been a one-woman army for many years, and together with Sanford CTED, this is her mission.


To learn more about what Sanford Behavioral Health offers patients with eating disorders, visit our website or contact us at 616.202.3326.

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Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.