The Connection Between Disabilities and Eating Disorders

Contributor: Staff at Montecatini Eating Disorder Treatment Center

Is there a relationship between having a disability and having an eating disorder? While there is little research into the co-occurrence of disability and eating disorders, that’s slowly changing. A study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institute of Mental Health in 2000 showed that women with physical disabilities were more likely to develop eating disorders.


It’s impossible to narrow down the cause of this phenomenon to just one thing. For some people, the pressure to conform after already feeling too “different” can take a toll. Others may be punishing their bodies for not being “normal” enough from the start.

Of course, there are also higher rates of traumatic and abusive experiences for people with disabilities than their peers. Research has already shown a strong link between traumatic experiences and eating disorders.

Other potential links include a disconnect between mind and body, a lack of healthy media representation, and control. Many people with disabilities feel they have no control over their bodies, including even what they’re able to do on a daily basis. Restricting eating can be a way to feel like you’re in control.

What types of conditions can influence eating disorders?

Many conditions involving the gastrointestinal tract may be related to higher incidences of eating disorders. Any GI condition can easily make it hard to eat—or want to eat. This could be due to a number of factors, including fear, pain, or other physical symptoms.

Gastroparesis, or slow digestion, can be both a symptom of and a possible link to eating disorders. This condition can lead to feeling full very quickly, making it difficult to eat very much.

Additionally, it can lead to bloating and pain. If someone experiences pain when they eat, it may be hard to get over pain avoidance techniques to get enough food in their body.

Some conditions, such as Prader-Willi Syndrome, can lead to someone continuing to eat despite being full. This can lead to rapid weight gain. Other conditions, like autism, may lead to difficulty eating.

Autism can cause a host of other issues. For example, if touching or tasting food that has one particular type of texture is upsetting, this can lead to a lack of eating. Some people with autism may have an aversion to particular colors, tastes, or other food characteristics.

Many people with mental health conditions engage in very rigid and controlled behavior. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may have to complete a compulsion, or ritual before they’re able to eat. Depending on what’s involved, these rituals might prove to be a barrier to meal time.

Conditions like anxiety, celiac disease, motility disorders, and more can even be mistaken for eating disorders prior to diagnosis. But, like others mentioned here, these conditions can also play influential roles in the development of eating disorders.


Girl concerned about Gaining Weight After Anorexia treatmentFor those who do develop an eating disorder, there is help. As with many other conditions, an eating disorder is a chronic illness that will always be there. However, with the right help, recovery is possible.

All it takes is finding the right provider and treatment center.

Treating co-occurring conditions

To get the best treatment for disabilities and eating disorders, people should be working with treatment providers and centers that are familiar with both eating disorders and other conditions they may be facing simultaneously. For example, disorders like diabulimia require treatment under an endocrinologist due to this disorder being both an eating disorder and a chronic illness.

What to look for

If you or a loved one is dealing with an eating disorder in addition to another chronic illness, below are some factors to consider while looking for treatment:

  • Do you know what type(s) of eating disorder(s) with which you’re dealing? If not, consider making an appointment with your primary care doctor to explore that more.
  • Is this provider familiar with your chronic illnesses?
  • Does this provider have local connections to ensure that you have the best support system possible?
  • Can treatment for your eating disorder(s) coexist with treatment(s) for your other chronic illnesses?
    • If not, this is a very important issue to discuss with both your regular doctor(s) and providers at any treatment centers you’re considering evaluate.
  • Stay hopeful. Recovery isn’t always easy, but it can be done—especially with the right help.

About Our Sponsor:

Montecatini provides comprehensive treatment to females age 16 and older who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring addiction and mental health concerns.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 8, 2019.
Reviewed & Approved on April 12, 2024, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

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