‘Drunkorexia’ Isn’t Just for Women
Binge drinking and eating disorders aren’t new to college campuses. But a relatively new phenomenon that combines these two behaviors has been making headlines of late. It’s colloquially known as “drunkorexia.” Recently, researchers from the University of Texas estimated that as many as 80% of college students are taking part in the practice, and not just women.
What Is ‘Drunkorexia’?
Drunkorexia first gained attention around 2010 when the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education published a study that found 14% of the college freshmen in a 692-person sample restricted calorie intake through anorexic and bulimic behaviors before drinking alcohol. The goals of these misguided strategies were to prevent weight gain, get drunk faster or both.
Drunkorexia behaviors typically include one or more of the following:
- Consuming less food to offset alcohol calories before or after drinking
- Excessive exercising to counteract caloric intake from drinking
- Binging and purging before, during or after alcohol consumption to digest fewer calories
- Skipping meals to get drunk quicker
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) does not currently recognize drunkorexia as a diagnostic classification. Eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia, binge-eating disorder, and other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) as well as alcohol use disorders are included in the manual.
Surprising Findings of Recent Drunkorexia Research
Previous research on drunkorexia found that more women suffered from this non-medical condition than their male counterparts. However, recent findings by researchers at the University of Houston at Texas (UH) suggest that college men are just as likely to pair alcohol use with calorie-reducing behaviors.
Dr. Dipali V. Rinker, a psychology research assistant professor at UH, presented preliminary research, “Examining the Association Between ‘Drunkorexia,’ Perceived Norms, And Drinking To Cope,” at the 39th Annual Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA) in New Orleans in June 2016. Using a sample size of 1,184 college students (60% female, mean age of 22.3 years), Rinker and associates examined the drinking behaviors of students who self-identified as engaging in binge-drinking behaviors in the last 30 days.
According to materials provided by the RSA, Rinkers’ survey results indicate that although college women who regularly binge drink more frequently compensate for calories with bulimic behaviors and experience more problems as a result of their drinking than men, the divide between the sexes may not be as deep as once thought. Men surveyed were just as likely to use binge-purge behaviors in an effort to quicken or intensify the effects of alcohol. Furthermore, in many cases, male students took part in more calorie-restricting, bulimic and over-exercising behaviors around drinking and food intake than female students. In a news release on the research presentation, Rinker is quoted as saying that at this time it is unclear why her findings indicate a higher rate of these types of behaviors in men than in previous studies. She says that more research is needed to fully understand the gender differences and similarities in those engaging in drunkorexia practices. In an interview with NBC news, Rinker speculated that this concerning trend could possibly be attributed to today’s appearance-obsessed society; men could be feeling some of the same pressures women have long felt about their looks.
The Dangers of Drunkorexia
People who teeter on the border between eating disorders and alcohol use disorders may be at risk for some of the following outcomes:
- Electrolyte imbalances due to purging behaviors that can lead to heart problems or heart failure.
- Mood disturbances, behavioral changes and mental illness resulting from alcohol’s long-term impact on the brain.
- Damage to organs like the liver, pancreas and heart through alcohol abuse.
- Increased risk for a number of cancers such as mouth cancer, esophagus cancer, throat cancer, liver cancer and breast cancer.
- A weakened immune system because binge drinking inhibits the body’s ability to fight infections.
- Dehydration due to binge-purge or anorexic behaviors that can lead to kidney failure.
- Reduction in bone density and osteoporosis.
- Vitamin depletion due to an unhealthy, restrictive diet and the body’s inability to absorb nutrients because of large amounts of alcohol in the system.
- Tooth decay from stomach acids released during vomiting.
- Rupture or inflammation of the esophagus from repetitive purging.
The occurrence of drunkorexia is still new to the research world. While effective treatments for this condition have yet to be studied, approaches that have proven helpful in treating eating disorders and alcohol use disorders may be a good start for someone engaging in these behaviors. These therapies may include cognitive behavioral therapy, trauma-focused approaches, nutrition counseling, motivational interviewing as well as psychotherapy and psychopharmacology to treat potential underlying mental health disorders.