Rise of “Drunkorexia” Phenomenon on College CampusesAnna Ciulla
It’s slang for an eating disorder involving alcohol, and college campuses are its prime breeding ground. Do you know what it is—and how to spot it in a college-aged friend or child? Get answers here.
The media portrayal of college students getting out of control at parties, binging on alcohol, losing control, and passing out or worse is so common that it might seem like a joke. It is not. The incidence of high intensity binge drinking among college students is concerning and tens of millions of Americans overall consume alcohol at dangerously high levels. Yet, there is another just as concerning phenomenon known as “drunkorexia” occurring on college campuses.
“DRUNKOREXIA” – WHAT IS IT?
Occurring mostly among college females, “drunkorexia” has been loosely defined by Urban Dictionary as “the act of restricting food intake/calories by day so one can party and get drunk at night without fear of gaining weight from the extra calories of the alcohol.” The National Eating Disorders Association says drunkorexia is a “slang term for someone who struggles with an eating disorder or alcohol abuse, or undereats during the day and binge drinks at night.” A University of Missouri-Columbia study looked at the combination of disordered eating and heavy alcohol consumption, a media-coined term of “drunkorexia,” and found that long-term health is affected. Note that drunkorexia, which is a slang, non-medical term, is not an official diagnosis.
The misguided thinking behind drunkorexia is that restricting caloric intake, or trading food calories for alcohol calories, allows for the consumption of more alcohol, without adding weight due to the calories in the alcohol. Indeed, in the University of Missouri-Columbia study, 16 percent of survey respondents admitted to calorie restriction so they could “save them for drinking.” The study also found that three times as many women as men reported drunkorexia behavior. Their motivations for doing so included a desire to prevent weight gain, get drunk faster, and save money they’d otherwise spend on food purchases so they could buy alcohol. This line of thought, however, is not only ill-informed, it also sets up the individual engaging in such behavior for potentially serious medical and psychological problems later.
This type of maladjusted behavior – deliberate food calorie restriction to drink more alcohol — is not limited to those with eating disorders. Nor is it only women who do so. Research shows that the practice is just as common among men. Drunkorexia can, however, serve as a trigger for the development of disordered eating in both men and women. And eating disorders and addiction share the same type of compulsive behavior. Furthermore, researchers have found that the reinforcement of a coping pattern for addiction to one behavior increases the vulnerability for developing another type of addiction.
RISKS OF DRUNKOREXIA
What are the risks drunkorexia poses? Several identified by the Stanford University Office of Alcohol Policy and Education include the following:
- Getting drunk faster
- Losing self-control and making bad decisions
- Binge eating because of hunger and inability to control urges
- Purging after binge eating episodes
- Insufficient nutrients to function properly because of food calorie reduction
The Research Society on Alcoholism cautions that the manner in which college students drink and engage in dieting or exercise behaviors before, during and after drinking with the intent to either reduce alcohol calories or increase alcohol’s effects “are putting themselves at risk for serious negative consequences related to alcohol use.”
POTENTIAL NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES FROM DRUNKOREXIA
Short- and long-term problems with cognition can result from deliberately engaging in drunkorexia. Difficulties with concentration, trouble studying and finding it tough to make decisions are just three of these cognition problems.
Other potential consequences from the combination of binge drinking and disordered eating include an increased risk for:
- Risky sexual behavior
- Unintended pregnancy
- Alcohol poisoning
- Substance abuse
- Chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and various cancers
- Long-term alcohol-related medical conditions such as fatty liver and cirrhosis, diabetes, even dementia
In addition, women are more prone to health problems because of binge drinking and disordered eating because their rate of metabolizing alcohol is different than men. This may make them more susceptible to becoming sick quicker and suffering more vital organ damage at a faster rate than men.
HOW IS DRUNKOREXIA TREATED?
Since it is not a medically diagnosable condition, there is no treatment specifically for drunkorexia. However, a dual diagnosis of substance abuse and an eating disorder can be treated with a comprehensive treatment program at an alcohol and drug rehab facility that addresses these separate, though intertwined, conditions simultaneously. Professional treatment and ongoing therapy will likely include nutrition counseling and treatment modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. This type of therapy is useful in treating the emotional and mental aspects of an eating disorder, as well as counter negative behavioral patterns of substance abuse. CBT helps change how you think about eating and drinking, body image, eating habits, food and alcohol cravings and urges, and preventing relapse.
In addition to, participation in 12-step groups for eating disorders such as Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) and Alcoholics Anonymous for alcohol abuse, or support groups that target disordered eating and alcohol abuse will help provide nonjudgmental encouragement from a like-minded network of peers that can serve to further motivate and facilitate progress in recovery.
Adopting healthier eating practices, engaging in regular exercise, getting sufficient sleep, hydrating often, beginning a meditation regimen or yoga are other ways to achieve and maintain balance in recovery. Remember that it takes commitment and a willingness to change to realize progress. It also takes facing yourself and uncovering your underlying motivations for compulsive food calorie restriction and indulging in the empty calories from alcoholic consumption.
ABC News, “Drunkorexia: Alcohol Mixes With Eating Disorders.” Retrieved July 20, 2017
American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM), “Drinking Beyond the Binge Threshold: Predictors, Consequences, and Changes in the U.S.” Retrieved July 19, 2017
NBC News, “’Drunkorexia’ Prevalent Among College Students, Study Finds.” Retrieved July 20, 2017
Psychiatric Times, “Addiction and the Eating Disorders.” Retrieved July 20, 2017
Research Society on Alcoholism, “Drunkorexia 101: Increasing Alcohol’s Effects Through Diet and Exercise Behaviors.” [Newswise] Retrieved July 19, 2017
Science Daily, “‘Drunkorexia:’ A recipe for disaster.” Retrieved July 19, 2017 from
Stanford University, Office of Alcohol Policy and Education, Student Affairs, “Drunkorexia: Risks.” Retrieved July 20, 2017