“Drunkorexia” and Other Risky Drinking Practices

The plain truth is that college students tend to drink more than their non-college peers. And unfortunately, drinking responsibly is not the norm on the college party scene. One type of risky drinking has been colorfully coined “drunkorexia” and refers to restricting calories or not eating at all to prevent weight gain from the calories in alcohol. While research has documented the problem before, a new study goes one step further to look at what motivates college students in particular to cut back on eating before, during and after a night of drinking, and the consequences of “drunkorexic” behavior.

off-to-college-main-200x200 2It’s no surprise that not wanting to pack on the Freshman 10 (15, or 20 …) drives many students to watch their food intake before drinking. However, “we found that wanting to conform was a more important reason than not wanting to gain weight,” says researcher Rose Marie Ward, PhD, of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “People were doing it [drunkorexia] because of peer pressure,” Dr. Ward explains. In her research, students said they felt they had to drink because they’re in college and “have to look good.” For these young people, the desire to fit in and look attractive means they might decide to eat less rather than drink less.

Drunkorexia isn’t just a problem for female students, either. Concern over extra pounds and overall appearance motivated both genders in Ward’s research to keep their calories in check, and men expressed more drunkorexia motives, according to the new research. “Men are also feeling this social [pressure] to have a certain look and still drink in college,” notes Ward. “They’re trying to conform to what society thinks they should look like.” Here were the top reasons (in order of most common to less common), according to the research, for cutting out food in favor of suds and other types of booze:

  • My friends pressure me to restrict my eating.
  • My friends encourage me to restrict my calories.
  • It helps you enjoy a party.
  • It makes a social gathering more fun.
  • So I can drink without feeling left out
  • So that others won’t make fun of me for not drinking
  • To fit in with a group
  • So that I would get high when I drank
  • Because my friends restrict their calories
  • To be liked
  • Because it’s fun

The Arc of a Drunkorexic Episode

Ward’s research also looked at drunkorexic behavior over the course of a drinking event. She and her colleague found three parts to food-restricting behavior:

  1. Before partying: College students restrict eating to avoid extra calories when they drink. 
  2. During partying: Students may try to restrict calories by going for light beer or drinking shots to minimize the total calories consumed.
  3. After partying: The next day, students who’ve restricted food calories to make way for drinking calories often over-exercise, throw up or avoid eating altogether if they feel they failed to restrict enough calories pre-partying or while drinking, Ward says.

Drunkorexia probably doesn’t affect the majority of college students. But it’s not uncommon either: Ward’s research found that 18% of U.S. college students exhibit these habits. Earlier studies estimate the number of students affected at 14% of first-year students and 39% of all college students among those who drank in the past 30 days.

Why Skipping Meals for Booze is a Bad Idea

“Restricting food before drinking isn’t a good idea for anyone at any age – it doesn’t matter whether you’re a college student or not,” says nutritionist Rosalind Breslow, PhD, RD, spokesperson for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “Food slows the absorption of alcohol. Your blood alcohol level doesn’t rise as fast or as high when you have food on board. And particularly for women, [restricting food] may raise the likelihood of alcohol poisoning, risky behaviors, injuries  and blackouts,” she says. According to Ward, who also studies alcohol blackouts, an alarming 50% of college students, say they’ve experienced a blackout at some point.

“Not having any food in your body when you drink can get you drunk faster,” warns Dr. Breslow, “which raises the chances that you will engage in behaviors you’ll later regret.” She also notes that there’s “nothing wrong with occasionally consuming a bit less during the day to leave room for a drink and some dessert later on. That’s a common recommendation from dietitians counseling people who are trying to lose or maintain their weight. On the other hand, binge drinking is a problem and eating little or nothing before [drinking alcohol] makes it worse.”

Other Risky Drinking Practices to Avoid

  • Underage drinking: Alcohol can interfere with normal brain development and increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (aka alcoholism), says Breslow. You may also get caught if you’re in violation of the college drinking policy and be subject to sanctions.
  • more-about-binge-drinkingBinge drinking: According to the NIAAA, 40% of college students have taken part in binge drinking in the last month . The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 90% of the alcohol consumed by youth under the age of 21 in the United States is in the form of binge drinking, which is dangerous because it can lead to alcohol poisoning, serious accidents such as car crashes and drownings and is associated with sexual assault and unintended pregnancy as well. Read the sidebar, “More About Binge Drinking.”
  • Mixing prescription drugs and alcohol: College students who binge drink are also more than three times more likely to use pain relievers, stimulants and tranquilizers non-medically, according to a study in the journal Addictive Behaviors. And when prescription drugs and alcohol are mixed, this risky practice which can lead to serious negative health complications, including overdose, breathing problems, memory issues, heart problems, liver damage and stoke.

“The fact is that one in three 18- year-olds admitted to emergency rooms for serious injuries is drunk,” says Breslow. So know the risks involved for drunkorexia and these other common campus drinking habits. Do what you can to keep any drinking you do in the safe and responsible range, once you reach the legal drinking age: For women 21 and over, that’s no more than three drinks on any day and no more than seven per week, and for men, it’ no more than four beers on any day and no more than 14 drinks per week.

This article is part of the Addiction.com series Off to College 2015: The First Six Weeks.” To read more about how students can make a healthy transition to campus life, click here.

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