As a college professor, I teach a Psychology of Eating class, and I'm also an advisor to one of the sororities on campus. So if someone has a problem with food or anything related to weight loss, dieting, or eating disorders, you can bet I've heard about it. I spend much of my office hours counseling students about their body image and weight issues, from personal weight-loss struggles to concerns about a friend's eating habits. (BTW, Here's what to do if you think your friend has an eating disorder.)
Despite being surrounded by these kinds of issues every day, there's one trend I've noticed that has me particularly concerned. This is something that students won't come to me directly about, but I hear the rumors in the hallways. The media is calling it "drunkorexia." Drunkorexia isn't a diagnosis; rather it's a label commonly given for a combination of diet-related behaviors (e.g., food restriction, excessive exercising, laxative use, bingeing, and purging) in conjunction with alcohol consumption. The idea is that you can "save" calories to drink to excess without gaining a pound, or throw up to easily rid yourself of those calories you just consumed after you had a few drinks.
Cause for concern begins with how quickly this trend has picked up steam. Eight out of 10 college students who drink heavily at least once a month admit to practicing drunkorexia. I'm also concerned about the medical consequences this threatens. Because of the focus on "saving" calories for drinking, many young people are drinking alcohol on an empty stomach. This intensifies the effects of the alcohol as, unlike food, alcohol gets absorbed quickly through the stomach lining. In fact, some students are choosing to calorie restrict for that very reason. Unfortunately, the more intense the effects of alcohol consumption, the more likely you will experience direct consequences (alcohol poisoning) or indirect consequences (poor decision making with potentially scary outcomes). Young women are at a particularly high risk. Alcohol tends to affect them more easily and heavily than men—up to 10 times faster. And women are more likely to engage in drunkorexia.
Additionally, there's a concern that this kind of disordered eating behavior will carry over to other areas of these students' lives. That is, drunkorexia may serve as a gateway to more severe disordered thoughts and behaviors around eating. Nearly 60 percent of college women who report drinking alcohol also engage in self-induced vomiting after alcohol consumption to rid themselves of the calories they consumed; of those women, 57 percent engage in this type of binge-purge behavior as often as four times per month. In addition, 72 percent of women who admit to abusing alcohol also suffer from a diagnosable eating disorder.
Perhaps the biggest concern is the "profile" of people who engage in drunkorexia. We're not talking about people who have the occasional glass of wine with dinner. The young people engaging in drunkorexia are usually drinking heavily at least once a month already. So when doctors and psychologists express concern about drunkorexia, they are expressing more than just concern over immediate dangers from the behavior. Drunkorexia marks a broader problem—those engaging in drunkorexia could be using alcohol as a coping mechanism. It's a way to numb your feelings, a way to escape and relieve painful emotions, stress, depression, or anxiety.
If you're still thinking that "saving" calories to drink or "getting rid of" calories after you drink is an idea worth exploring, know this: In addition to the aforementioned risks, drunkorexia doesn't actually work. That's right. Alcohol usually contains a lot of calories—sometimes more than the meal you skipped to compensate for the drinking. In addition, because alcohol gets absorbed directly through the stomach lining rather than in the intestines, the calories are harder to purge, as they get absorbed more quickly than food. [Note: No one is advocating you purge calories from food, alcohol—anything.] Also, calorie restriction lowers your blood sugar, making you crave and eat (or drink) even more than you would have had you not skipped a meal or two. (Cutting out even one meal can make you moody and mad, so you won't even enjoy the party.) So those who engage in drunkorexia often binge on food in addition to alcohol because they're so hungry.
Bottom line: Drunkorexia is a dangerous trend. If you suffer from drunkorexia or know someone who does, please seek help from a professional. Whether you're drinking full-calorie drinks or "skinny" cocktails doesn't matter. Drunkorexia will likely do more harm to your body than you realize.