It is hardly news that eating disorders and alcohol abuse both have a significant presence on college campuses. However, a disturbing trend among young adults called “drunkorexia,” a combination of these two disorders, has recently been which is making headlines.
Drunkorexia refers to the restrictive eating behaviors that some people engage in before consuming alcohol, in order to conserve calories as well as get drunk faster.
Because alcohol has a high calorie content—many beers clock in at 150 calories—some students who wish to avoid weight gain will, for example, drastically decrease their food intake or skip meals entirely in order to consume the same amount of calories in alcohol. This behavior is unsurprisingly common among college students, and is said to be especially prevalent among female students.
While drunkorexia is a useful label for a common behavior, it is not a medical term, and many disagree about whether it should be considered a disorder separate from either anorexia or alcoholism.
Leada Fuller-Marashi ’14, who helps run an eating disorder support group on campus, took issue with the term.
“I think that the term drunkorexia trivializes the issue and at the same time it implies a strong link to anorexia, which I think is flawed as well,” Fuller-Marashi said. “People who are anorexic struggle with their restrictive behavior pretty much constantly, and that isn’t the case with drunkorexia, because it’s more of a means to an end rather than an ongoing psychological phenomenon. It might make more sense to describe the issue as alcohol-related disordered eating.”
Fuller-Marashi made it clear that she believes drunkorexia is distinct from anorexia. However, to label drunkorexia as disordered eating, rather than an eating disorder, does not mean it is necessarily less serious, although sometimes that is the implication. While eating disorders are diagnosed when a person engages in unusual eating habits, such as inadequate or excessive food intake, that harm their physical and emotional health, disordered eating describes a wider range of abnormal eating habits (that do not permit a diagnosis for a specific eating disorder).
Regardless of its exact location on a scale of eating and alcohol-related disorders, drunkorexia is regarded as dangerous by health professionals. Dr. Davis Smith of Wesleyan’s Davison Health Center finds the phenomenon extremely troubling.
“Eating before drinking helps slow the absorption of alcohol,” Smith said. “This is why eating before drinking is a good idea. Sudden, rapid, intense onset of intoxication is more likely to lead to problems like drunk drinking (losing track of intake) and blackouts. Excessive drinking and blacking out increase risk for severe intoxication, medically dangerous intoxication, sexual assault, vomiting, loss of bladder and bowel control, hangovers, and other adverse effects. I work on the assumption that avoiding the above is desirable.”
The playfulness of the term drunkorexia may imply that this behavior does not have lasting impacts. However, this disordered eating pattern can have serious long-term consequences, since it can lead to malnourishment, among other issues.
“Complications of malnourishment could include structural damage to the heart, decreased fertility, wasting of respiratory muscles, and brain atrophy,” Dr. Smith said.
This behavioral pattern of restricting food in order to consume more alcohol was brought to national attention this year by a study at the University of Missouri. In this study, sixteen percent of college students surveyed admitted to engaging in this behavior; three-quarters of that sixteen percent were women.
Although Fuller-Marashi said that she personally had not encountered this form of disordered eating at the Univesrity, she was unsurprised that drunkorexia was found to be common among college students.
“From my research and experience, I know that this is a very common time for people to have or develop eating disorders and disordered eating habits, so I’m sure ‘drunkorexia’ is not a rare occurrence,” Fuller-Marashi said. “Last I checked, one in ten people in the U.S. has an eating disorder, and I imagine the proportion of people with disordered eating is even higher. So statistically speaking, I’m sure a not-insignificant number of students deals with this issue.”
However, Director of Public Safety Dave Meyer disagrees. His experiences with dangerously intoxicated students on campus have not led him to believe that drunkorexia is that common at the University.
“We’ve had issues with students who have been intoxicated because they didn’t eat enough and quickly became over-intoxicated,” Meyer said. “There isn’t any direct evidence that it’s intentional. We also have people who have just been stressed out or tired, and any of those factors would allow you to be more intoxicated.”
Even though the term drunkorexia may not be familiar to everyone, many University students interviewed said they had noticed people on campus engaging in the behaviors it describes.
“I know people who eat less before drinking, usually in order to save calories, but sometimes to get drunk faster,” said Hope Kabel ’14. “I’ve even seen people eat less the day before they’re going to drink—this way they can eat on the day they are actually going to drink, and that way they won’t get sick.”
When asked if she thought drunkorexia was common at the University, Kelsey Siegel ’13 did not have to think twice.
“Yes, definitely,” Siegel said.
Without a formal study or survey, it is uncertain exactly how prevalent this form of disordered eating is at the University; it may very well not be a prevalent phenomenon. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of it as a potential problem on campus, and discourage peers from engaging in this unhealthy behavior.
“You can encourage people to eat when they think they shouldn’t, if you do so in a non-pushy way,” Fuller-Marashi said. “And if someone is seriously hurting themselves by binge drinking or their body mass is low enough to be dangerous, a heartfelt conversation could help them, because they might not even realize what they’re doing to themselves. But generally speaking, people with eating disorders have to decide to start the journey to recovery themselves.”