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Drunkorexia: Over half of female university students offset calories from alcohol by skipping meals, study finds

Trend evolves from the need for young girls to meet the two most prominent social norms for young adults, 'drinking and thinness,' says author

Aftab Ali
Student Editor
Thursday 30 June 2016 12:48 BST
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It had been thought that ‘drunkorexia’, the trend of skipping meals in order to save calories to drink alcohol, was anecdotal, even something of a myth.

However, as it turns out, the practice is very much a reality - and becoming worryingly popular among young women, particularly university students - as it is revealed almost 60 per cent of female undergrads admit to drunkorexic behaviours.

PhD student at the University of South Australia (UniSA), Alissa Knight, brought the startling fact to light having conducted a study into the practice after learning of it existing in the US.

Published in Australian Psychologist on Thursday, the school of psychology student described how the American research suggested young female adults had begun a “new problematic trend” that intertwined two major health problems in Western countries - disordered eating and alcohol misuse - but couldn’t find any evidence for its prevalence in Australia.

Having carried out a study, Knight found a “considerable percentage” (57.7 per cent) reported frequently engaging in various disordered eating, and other extreme weight-control behaviours, a quarter of the time or more in the three months before.

The young women in her study sample* all admitted to undertaking the practice while at, or after, a planned drinking event, to compensate for anticipated alcohol calories.

Knight said: “The most common drunkorexia behaviours in young female university students were skipping meals before a drinking event (37.5 per cent), consuming low-calorie or sugar-free alcoholic beverages during a drinking event (46.3 per cent), and exercising after a drinking event (51.2 per cent).

“These are dangerous behaviours because evidence shows young female adults who are binge drinking on an empty stomach, or after strenuous exercise, have increased alcohol toxicity, which dramatically increases their risk of developing serious physical and psychological health consequences, including brain and heart damage, memory lapses, blackouts, depression, and cognitive deficits.”

Knight’s research was supervised by supervised by UniSA Psychology Clinic Director, Dr Susan Simpson, who also revealed that, while some students reported engaging in eating disorder type behaviour regularly, an unexpected number reported they only used behaviours such as “starvation, purging, extreme exercise, or taking laxatives” when they anticipated the use of alcohol, such as on a Saturday night at a party.

Knight continued: “Drunkorexia appears to have evolved from the need for young girls to meet possibly the two most prominent social norms for young adults - drinking and thinness.”

At home in the UK, Emma Healey, spokesperson for eating disorders charity Beat, has previously said: “Someone who skips a meal to drink isn’t necessarily going to become an anorexic, but it’s obviously highly unhealthy and if people are vulnerable it could be a high risk behaviour.”

Speaking to alcohol awareness charity, Drinkaware, Healey continued: “We always groan when the media starts talking about the latest ‘orexias’. The latest one was ‘pregorexia’, mums-to-be who obsess over their weight.

“But we do come across drunkorexia in the work we do with young people, even if they don’t call it that. It’s a difficult and sensitive area.”

*136 study participants met the following inclusion criteria: female, a current undergraduate Australian university student, between the ages of 18 and 25, and had consumed alcohol within the past three months

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article, please visit Drinkaware for a list of useful support services

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