Drunkorexia—it’s a term that sounds like a joke, but is a growing behavioral trend on college campuses and well into adulthood.
Referred to as “the liquid diet,” drunkorexia is a colloquialism for skipping meals in place of alcohol to “save” calories, replace meals, or drink to the point that it induces vomiting (bulimia). It has become a trend that has been regularly accepted in the millennial culture because it hides under our nation’s larger binge-drinking epidemic.
While drunkorexia is not yet formally classified as an eating disorder, researchers are finally taking note on this epidemic that combines the worst of drinking and dieting.
What research says about drunkorexia
Early this year, the Research Society on Alcoholism published a preliminary study of 1,184 college students in Texas, which found that among those who drank excessively (more than four drinks in a sitting for women and five for men) at least once in the past 30 days, as many as eight in 10 also engaged in at least one “drunkorexic” behavior within the same month.
Although it was initially thought to be a larger problem found in females, studies are showing that men are now as likely to engage in the behaviors of drunkorexia as well. This is likely because men tend to partake in riskier and more extreme drinking behaviors than women and are also becoming more and more self-conscious and preoccupied with their body image. The study also found that students who lived in fraternity and sorority houses were the most likely to report engaging in the behavior, followed by those living in residence halls.
Drunkorexia isn’t just about drinking
Research strongly suggests that drunkorexia is not “just about getting drunk,” and is often associated with the body image concerns that are prevalent in our culture.
Having experienced drunkorexia for years, I understand firsthand how easy it is to hide behind the smokescreen of this present lifestyle. Like many others, I started college and used alcohol as a sneaky means of compensating for an eating disorder that I had been struggling with for years. I medicated my disordered eating anxieties with booze, and I justified not eating properly because of it as well.
Drinking fueled the fear of weight gain, yet everyone seemed to be doing it. Alcohol was everywhere, and like so many of us experience, binge-drinking was the culture in college. It’s well-known that if a student is remotely social in college, they will inevitably end up in a situation where alcohol is more readily available than food. Although I actively chose to attend the events where I knew alcohol would be free-flowing, drinking gave me a daily dose of eating disorder anxiety. I was able to justify not eating because once I had a glass of alcohol, food felt easier to avoid than wine.
The alcohol industry plays a role in this growing trend in that it has increasingly targeted young people with weight-conscious marketing, tapping straight into teen and 20-something body anxiety. Because of this, it’s working on a wider basis every day, encouraging eating disorder behaviors and consequences with its very pointed marketing techniques that insinuate that alcohol is “healthy” for the consumer.
Because we live in a culture where brunch is the norm and happy hour is included every restaurant menu, the drunkorexia pattern is easy to fall prey to. For most people, “brunching” is an event where a group of friends gather at a restaurant that offers half-priced (or bottomless) alcohol with a meal. In many cases, this means later in the afternoon, and conveniently skipping full meals that should have come before or the meals that follow.
In my own experience, I used alcohol at brunch to subdue hunger cues and replace the food in front of me. It was not the intoxication I craved from alcohol, but more the subtle ease that alcohol imparted on both my hunger and the anxiety of eating in public.
Health effects of drunkorexia
There are many potential consequences to drinking on an empty stomach. Drinking without eating leads to more rapid absorption of alcohol and higher levels of impairment and intoxication. So, every time people purposely act on this behavior, they incur increased risks of things like sexual assault and DUIs and, in the long run, they increase their risk of experiencing gastritis, ulcers, and malnutrition.
Moreover, the metabolism of alcohol can result in potentially harmful byproducts and metabolic derangement. Specifically, chronic drinking can influence metabolic pathways and ultimately contribute to conditions such as hyperlipidemia (excessive lipids in the blood), lactic acidosis (the accumulation of lactic acid in body fluids), and ketosis (an excessive production of ketones) and fatty liver.
Binge eating after a night out of drinking on an empty stomach is often a common side effect as well.
The other non-textbook reason drunkorexia is problematic is that the behaviors of drunkorexia consist of the same deception and manipulation that standard eating disorders emote. Being drunk and making choices you’d otherwise think twice about opens up the floodgates to anxiety, depression, and isolation. It opens up the doors to larger eating disorder manipulations, which are incredibly difficult to counteract.
Drunkorexia may itself not be a classified eating disorder, but its behaviors pave a walkway for anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Alcohol may be a part of our culture, but we should be careful not to overlook its presence in eating disorders.
Zakhari S. “Overview: how is alcohol metabolized by the body?” Alcohol Res Health. 2006, 5 September 2016. <www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17718403?dopt=Abstract>.Zaragoza Martí. Sánchez San Segundo. Ferrer Cascales. Sánchez Barrioluengo. “Drunkorexia habits of University students.” AulaMedica. 1 December 2015. 4 September 2016. <www.aulamedica.es/nh/pdf/10350.pdf>,
New, Jake. “Study: 8 in 10 students said they engaged in behaviors related to drunkorexia” InsideHigherEd, 30 June 2016. 5 September 2016. <www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/06/30/study-8-10-students-said-they-engaged-behaviors-related-drunkorexia>