Knowing about “drunkorexia” can save your child’s life.
Story: Joy Stephenson-Laws
I learned about “drunkorexia” the hard way recently when a very close family member called me, asking for a ride home after he was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence. He was heading home after a night out with friends and was pulled over by the police
Normally, he is a responsible, level-headed individual who has both Uber and Lyft apps on his phone. He could have easily accessed either app if he knew he would be in a situation where he might have a few drinks and had to get home. He had never had this experience before, so I wondered why this happened.
It turns out he had put himself on a very strenuous workout regimen and crash diet to lose some weight he gained after a sports injury. When he knew he had to go out with friends, he usually skipped dinner and sometimes lunch. He then drank alcohol thinking he could afford the calories from it since he was consuming so few of them from food and was exercising so much.
Of course, drinking on an empty stomach is never a good idea and even less so when your body needs to recuperate after exercise. This risky combination resulted in him “miscalculating” how much he was drinking and how it would affect him. And the result was a DUI.
He’s now following a program to lose weight in a healthy way and also address his drinking patterns. I am glad to say he is doing well on both.
As someone who has dedicated my life to helping people get and stay healthy, I decided to see if what happened to my family member is happening to other college students. If so, how common is the combination of drinking and extreme dieting? What I found out is alarming and something every parent with a child in college needs to know.
It’s more common than you think
I learned that what happened to my family member is now commonplace on campuses around the country. So common, in fact, that it has a slang name—drunkorexia—and more than 80 percent of college students, both male and female, who binge drink report doing it.
The term drunkorexia pretty much means exactly what it sounds like: being drunk and anorexic at the same time. If you Google drunkorexia, the option to look up “drunkorexia tips” will auto-populate in the search box. While not a medical term, it refers to combining alcohol consumption with extreme and risky diet-related behaviors such as limiting food intake (including skipping meals), excessive exercising, or, in more extreme cases, binging and purging (which is a behavior of bulimia). This behavior also may involve taking laxatives and diuretics.
The idea behind drunkorexia is to limit the number of calories from food so you can drink more without gaining weight. Some students also report doing it because drinking on an empty stomach gets them drunk faster and for less money.
A study by the University of Missouri found that 30 percent of female college students admitted that within the past year they had restricted food in order to consume greater quantities of alcohol. The same study found that men are more likely to engage in similar behavior in order to save money on purchasing alcohol. According to the study, 67 percent of students who restrict calories prior to alcoholic beverage consumption do so to prevent weight gain, while 21 percent do it to facilitate alcohol intoxication.
No matter the reasons for engaging in this behavior, it is very risky socially, psychologically, and physically.
While some students may exhibit drunkorexia on an ad hoc or binge basis, others plan their dieting and exercise around their drinking events to try to maximize the perceived benefits.
In one report, a student says, “Me getting drunk faster from starving myself, that was just a bonus point.” Another told researchers, “Nobody told me about [drunkorexia]. I just, like, figured it out. I got it down to a science. If it’s greasy food, it’ll soak up. You can drink so much if you eat cheeseburgers.”
Of course, a diet of fasting and cheeseburgers is risky enough without the addition of large quantities of alcohol to the mix.
The jury is still out on whether drunkorexia is more of an eating disorder or more of an alcohol abuse issue. I think it is both.
One thing that researchers seem to agree on, however, is that students who engage in drunkorexia are seldom, if ever, anorexic. This is because any student battling this eating disorder would tend to avoid alcohol completely due to its high caloric content.
No matter the motivation behind it—to save calories, get drunk faster, or a combination of both—drunkorexia creates both short-term and long-term risks to students. These include:
- Vitamin and mineral depletion, especially B vitamins.
- Chronic malnutrition.
- Alcohol poisoning.
- Blackouts, which may lead to risky behaviors like driving under the influence and unprotected sex. It also may make someone more of a target for a sexual assault.
- Alcohol-related brain damage, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
- Reduced cognitive abilities, for example, difficulty concentrating, trouble studying, or difficulty making decisions.
- Poor academic performance.
- Increased probability of substance abuse and chronic disease later in life.
- Social problems, such as fights, violence, and dysfunctional relationships.
- Legal problems.
How can you be proactive about drunkorexia?
Drunkorexia is not yet a medically diagnosed condition, and there is no specific treatment for it. However, since it is a combination of two different disorders, any type of intervention or treatment will need to address both. If your child shares that he or she is concerned they may be suffering from drunkorexia, there are ways to help them:
- Encourage them to seek support from their university health services. Many universities are now recognizing drunkorexia as a problem and offering support.
- Encourage them to exercise, but in a healthy manner that does not involve overdoing it simply to burn as many calories as possible. Exercise can help relieve stress and is good for mental health. And, of course, it benefits the heart and helps with weight management.
- Identify local support groups, especially 12-step groups, that address eating disorders, alcohol abuse, and self-image doubts, and share these with your child.
- Help your child learn more about healthy eating and healthy living habits that can help undo the health damage from drunkorexia and help them stay healthier overall.
- Consider getting nutritional testing for your child to see what impact their eating and drinking behaviors may have had on their bodies. Identify the steps they can take to remedy any deficiencies and get nutrients such as water, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals back in their bodies for a healthy balance.
College always has been and always should be a time for self-discovery, exploration, and learning about oneself and the world. It also involves experimenting and learning limits. The secret is doing so in moderation. With a little common sense and education, your child will be able to recognize that drunkorexia goes over the limit.
And by the way, my family member has agreed to relay his experiences with losing weight and drinking after he has completed his program. That is the price he had to pay for depriving me of much needed sleep.
Watch for this!
Since the vast majority of college students live on campus, as a parent it may be difficult to readily spot the warning signs of drunkorexia in your child. But things you can watch for, either alone or in combination, include the following:
- Changes in physical activity, especially an unexplained increase from previous levels or over-exercising for no apparent reason.
- A new preoccupation or concern over calorie intake, especially if your child has a normal body weight.
- Missing or skipping meals your child used to always enjoy eating, for no apparent reason.
About the writer:
Joy Stephenson-Laws is the founder of Proactive Health Labs (phlabs.org), a national nonprofit health information company that provides education and tools needed to achieve optimal health. Her most recent book is “Minerals—The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy.”