A new word has recently been added to the eating disorder lexicon: drunkorexia. This colloquial term refers to people who forego or limit food in order to consume more alcohol. And it’s on the rise.
A recent study at the University of South Australia revealed alarming results among young female students. Focusing on the drinking and eating patterns of 479 female students (18-24 years of age), it found that 82.7% of students surveyed had engaged in so-called “drunkorexic” behaviors in a three month period, and more than 28% did so on a regular basis.
“Certainly, many of us have drunk too much alcohol at some point in time, and we know just by how we feel the next day, that this is not good for us, but when nearly a third of young female uni students are intentionally cutting back on food purely to offset alcohol calories; it’s a serious health concern,” observed clinical psychologist and lead study researcher Alycia Powell-Jones to Eurekalert.org.
Because it’s not a medical term, drunkorexia is not in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and definitions vary. Psychology Today described the behavior to “generally include engaging in unhealthy compensatory behaviors (e.g., extreme caloric restriction, over-exercise, or purging) to offset calories ingested through alcoholic beverages or to increase how quickly one becomes intoxicated. Some researchers also include drinking excessively in order to make oneself vomit—and thus purge any food one consumed earlier, along with some of the alcohol—as a component of drunkorexia.”
This means that a typical (statistically female) student, concerned with health, thinness, and fitness, might either skip meals or engage in far lower-calorie foods in order to binge drink at a college party later that evening. While typical attitudes toward drinkers categorize them as less healthy overall, research among actively drinking college students has indicated the opposite.
“One recent study of over 25,000 students across 40 U.S. campuses found that binge drinkers were more likely to engage in regular, vigorous exercise. They were also more likely to engage in a wide variety of eating disordered behaviors,” wrote Psychology Today.
According to University of Texas, Austin, there are plenty of health risks involved in drunkorexic behavior; it’s like combining the dangers of binge drinking with the hazards of an eating disorder. Some of the health pitfalls include:
- Drinking on an empty stomach may lead to overconsumption and an unexpected degree of intoxication that inhibits judgment and increases the risk for physical injury.
- Metabolizing alcohol increases the need for certain nutrients while restricting food intake reduces nutrient availability. This combination increases the risk for nutrient deficiencies.
- Drinking alcohol after working out inhibits protein synthesis and muscle repair, which slows down the recovery process and minimizes potential improvements in fitness.
- Alcohol consumption limits our decision-making capabilities and may predispose someone to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors such as binge eating.
In addition to this hefty list, Australian researcher Powell-Jones adds her own warning.
“Excess alcohol consumption combined with restrictive and disordered eating patterns is extremely dangerous and can dramatically increase the risk of developing serious physical and psychological consequences, including hypoglycaemia, liver cirrhosis, nutritional deficits, brain and heart damage, memory lapses, blackouts, depression and cognitive deficits,” Powell-Jones says.
Because of these potentially life-threatening consequences, researchers at University of South Florida, recommended a more appropriate name: Food and Alcohol Disturbance (FAD). Perhaps this name change will lead to a more serious look at this emerging condition.