Across the country, young adults are setting into their lives on college campuses. Many are experiencing college for the first time, eagerly navigating sprawling campuses, new dorm rooms, and an inevitably active social scene as freshman, while upperclassmen are returning to their independent lives following summers at home. Amid all the hustle and bustle of campus life lies an unsettling trend: the use of eating disordered behaviors alongside social binge drinking. College students are increasingly electing to drink their calories, restricting food intake throughout the day in an attempt to reserve calories for large quantities of alcohol to be consumed at social gatherings later in the evening. Similarly, students will often binge on food and alcohol and then purge—through vomiting, laxative and/or diuretic use or excessive exercise—in an attempt to offset the calories consumed.
These behaviors have recently been coined “drunkorexia” by the popular media, a term that seems to marry the words “drunk” and “anorexia” in an effort to draw a connection between eating disorders and substance abuse. However, “drunkorexia” isn’t an official eating disorder diagnosis, but rather is a descriptive term increasingly being used by the general public to describe a set of increasingly common behaviors. Popular terms like “drunkorexia” can represent a challenge to identifying eating issues and pursuing appropriate treatment, primarily because they tend to glamorize dangerous eating disordered thoughts and behaviors.
While terms like “drunkorexia” may potentially glamorize a serious issue occurring on college campuses, the media attention that it is garnering is helping to bring the real issue to light: the connection between eating disorders and alcohol abuse. Not surprisingly, both eating disorders and alcohol abuse are increasingly prevalent on college campuses across the United States. The transition to college is a common eating disorder trigger among young adults, while binge drinking continues to be a mainstay of college culture. In fact, the Harvard University’s School of Public Health College Alcohol Study found that 44% of respondents acknowledged having engaged in binge drinking within two weeks of the survey. (1) Furthermore, a 2002 study by Knight et. al. found nearly 31 percent of college students met the criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse. (2)
The connection between eating disorders and substance abuse, including alcohol abuse, is well documented as well. Abuse of drugs and alcohol offers a mechanism for those suffering from eating disorders to numb their pain and anxiety. Research suggests that 25 percent of individuals entering treatment for eating disorders will meet criteria for substance abuse problems, as well as a higher incidence of substance abuse in first-degree relatives of people with eating disorders.(3)
While both eating disorders and substance abuse are dangerous independent of one another, the combination of the two illnesses can be particularly unsafe, even life threatening in some cases. Prolonged restriction of vital nutrients and overindulgence in alcohol can ultimately trigger irreversible damage to organs, causing the body’s essential systems to fail.
In order to prevent these serious health consequences stemming from alcohol abuse occurring alongside an eating disorder, look for these warning signs:
- A drink is the new appetizer…and dessert. Oftentimes, the connection between alcohol and disordered eating may begin with minor changes in routine like substituting a drink for an appetizer or opting for a glass of wine instead of dessert. If a friend or loved one is swapping bruschetta and sorbet for martinis and Irish coffees, express your concerns that these behaviors may progress into unhealthy eating and alcohol consumption patterns.
- Tolerant quickly becomes intolerant. While several factors, including body weight and altitude, can contribute to an individual’s alcohol tolerance, drinking on an empty stomach can result in noticeable and swift intoxication through an increased rate of alcohol absorption into the bloodstream. If a friend or loved one’s alcohol tolerance appears to be fluctuating, with or without a significant weight loss, it may be a sign they are restricting their calories to compensate for that of their alcohol intake.
Regardless of the specific drinking and disordered eating behaviors individuals may practice, overindulging in alcohol when already restricting food and nutrients can be a deadly cocktail. The sooner the behaviors are acknowledged and effective treatment is sought for an eating disorder and co-occurring alcohol abuse, the better the chances are for a full, lasting recovery. For individuals observing friends or loved ones struggle with disordered eating behaviors and alcohol abuse, it can be difficult to know how to best provide support. Visit Eating Recovery Center’s website to learn about the eating disorders resources available to individuals struggling with an eating disorder; information and expert guidance is also available to families and friends of those suffering from eating disorders.
Comment below with your questions and comments about the relationship between eating disorders and alcohol abuse.
(3): Kaye, W., and Wisniewski, L. 1996. "Vulnerability to Substance Abuse in Eating Disorders." NIDA.159, 269-311.