Nearly a third of college students say they engage in practices that have been dubbed “drunkorexia.”
That’s the name given to behaviors such as skipping meals or exercising heavily to offset calories from a heavy night of drinking, or to pump up alcohol’s buzz.
Though drunkorexia has been around for a while, it wasn't clear how prevalent it was. But a recent study shows how common it’s become among college kids who binge-drink at least once a month: eight out of 10 say they do it.
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Earlier research showed that 40 percent of college students drink heavily — four or more drinks per bout for women and five or more for men — at least once a month, says the new report’s lead author, Dipali Rinker, a research assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Houston.
It’s those heavy drinkers that Dipali focused on.
A survey of 1,184 of them found that during the previous three months, 80 percent had engaged in at least one of the following drunkorexic behaviors:
- Cutting back on food and increasing exercise to either speed or enhance the high from drinking
- Engaging in bulimic-type behaviors: vomiting after eating, taking laxatives or using diuretics
- Boosting exercise or eating less to offset calories from drinking: this could include drinking low-calorie beers or cocktails, skipping a meal or avoiding food all day, or exercising intensely
One of the big surprises for Dipali was that drunkorexic practices were just as common among men as they were in women.
“We really expected women would be engaging in these behaviors more than men,” she told NBC News.
She isn’t sure what’s going on, but suspects there have been some major cultural shifts resulting in men being more worried about their appearance these days.
“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,” Dipali said.
Another surprise: frat brothers and sorority sisters weren’t any more likely than others to engage in drunkorexic behaviors.
Dr. Karen Miotto wasn’t at all surprised by the new findings.
“I think we have a very appearance-conscious group of young people and many do struggle with restrictive eating disorders,” said Miotto, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the addiction medicine service at UCLA’s Semel Institute. “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.”
Beyond that, Miotto said, “it’s widely known that you absorb alcohol more quickly if there’s no food [in your stomach] so you can reach peak intoxication faster.”
College students are drawn to alcohol for a number of reasons, she added.
“It’s a social lubricant,” she said. “It provides the disinhibition, the freedom to make small talk and to be more sexual.”
One of the big concerns with drunkorexia is that people can become vitamin-deficient, especially in thiamine, Miotto said. And that can lead to nerve and brain damage.
Concerned parents need to understand that alcohol problems in college are largely tied to the perception that heavy drinking is the norm, according to Dipali.
“The ‘Animal House’ style of drinking is something we see only in college,” she said. “There is a perception that everyone is doing it so it’s OK to do it.”
One way to combat the problem is with education, Dipali said. That means telling students how much everyone else is drinking and comparing it to their own personal consumption.
“They always think that everyone else is drinking more than they are,” she said. “And while 40 percent are engaging in heavy drinking, there are 60 percent who are not. In fact, there are 20 percent who are abstaining.”