A few years ago, the term “drunkorexia” began making the rounds. The portmanteau—a combination of “drunk” and “anorexia”—is used to describe skipping meals or exercising to save or shed calories, in anticipation of drinking alcohol later. It’s not news that many college students drink, and frequently to excess. The New York Times reports binge drinking rates on college campuses have been around 40 percent for at least two decades now. It’s also not unusual to hear of students who replace meals with alcohol—either to save money, avoid weight gain, or get the most drunk possible (and sometimes, a some combination of all three).
That said, experts have been surprised to learn that drunkorexia is more widespread than previously believed. Researchers from the University of Houston recently presented findings that show drunkorexic behaviors were incredibly common among students, and practiced in equal measure by both men and women.
Study authors polled 1,184 students, the majority of them attendees of the University of Houston. They found that during the previous three months, 80 percent said they’d “engaged in at least one behavior related to drunkorexia.” According to Inside Higher Ed, the actions included “inducing vomiting, consuming laxatives or diuretics, or not eating anything before drinking.”
Bulimia-related practices, specifically, were more common among women. But more generally, students of both sexes reported taking part in some drunkorexia practices, such as skipping meals. Dipali Rinker, a researcher in the University of Houston psychology department who led the study, chalks this up to aesthetic concerns that are now more equally shared by both men and women than they were in the past.
“In the eating disorders field, there’s a growing sense, and supporting evidence, that men are now just as weight- and shape-conscious as women are, especially in this age of social media,” Rinker told NBC.
“It used to be about the ideal female body, but now the male body is idealized, too, with men striving for 6-pack abs and bulging biceps, triceps and quadriceps,” Karen Miotto, a psychology professor at UCLA who specializes in addiction psychiatry, added.
Study lead Rinker found—although I’m not sure it really would’ve taken a huge amount of investigation to discover this—that students living in fraternity and sorority houses were more likely to have recently engaged in drunkorexic behaviors than those living in dorms. In general, the study found, the students most likely to use drunkorexic methods are heavy, or binge, drinkers.
“We’re not talking about someone concerned about a 150-calorie glass of wine,” Aaron White, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told Inside Higher Ed. “We’re talking about someone who is concerned about 1,000 calories from binge drinking, and that’s the person you just don’t want skipping meals.”
White highlights the health consequences associated with heavy drinking, which are exacerbated when other dietary concerns are neglected.
“Long term, it’s not a good idea to skip nutritious meals in order to consume more calories from alcohol,” he said. “Then there are the short-term consequences. Having food in your stomach reduces peak blood alcohol levels about a third, so if you flip that, your peak level is significantly higher, increasing risk of blackouts, injuries and poor decisions. The consequences are worse than the consequences of not saving the calories.”
While drunkorexia is most common on college campuses, where binge drinking has always been wildly popular and bingeing on alcohol has only gotten more intense in recent years, it’s not confined to any one sphere. Drinking is on the rise across the board in America. A study released last year by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that “heavy drinking among Americans rose 17.2 percent between 2005 and 2012” and “binge drinking 8.9 percent nationally during the same time frame.” The result is that people well beyond college years are practicing drunkorexic tactics as well.
“We also see [drunkorexia] in the foodie, middle-aged population, who want to indulge in drinking expensive wines or craft beer,” Bonnie Brennan, an eating disorders specialist at the Eating Recovery Center, told Self magazine.
The phenomenon is also not contained to the U.S. Hard-partying drinkers across the pond are indulging in drunkorexic practices as well. The Huffington Post reports that a new survey finds 35 percent of British women and 43 percent of British men age 18 to 24 report skipping meals so they can drink more, without calorie worries, later on.