Jacket potato or gin? Spaghetti bolognaise or a bottle of wine? Instead of having both, statistics show that as many in one in five students will shun a nutritious meal and select the alcohol instead – ‘saving’ the calories from the food to ‘spend’ on alcohol later. Those who find themselves in this situation may be suffering from a condition that is currently penned as ‘drunkorexia’.
Drunkorexic behaviour is characterised mainly by a dramatic reduction in eating the day before a big night out – so that one can party and get drunk at night without fear of gaining weight from the extra calories of the alcohol. In other words, eat less and drink more.
Recent studies show 30 per cent of women between 18 and 23 have skipped a meal in order to drink more. Sixteen per cent do it on a regular basis. Although these behaviours are more prevalent in university aged women, men may also engage these unhealthy practices.
A third year criminology student who doesn’t wish to be named told T’Hud: “Typically, if I’m off out at night, the last thing that I will have eaten that day is at about 2pm. It’s not just about the calories, skipping a meal means that I will spend less money on drinks because I will get drunker faster than if I’d eaten.”
A study carried out on 1000 students who were said to suffer from this behaviour found that the most common reasons for prioritising drinking alcohol over eating a meal included saving money and controlling their weight. Another perceived benefit for those who suffer from drunkorexia is that, with the reduction of food in the body, alcohol is absorbed faster from the digestive system and therefore they become intoxicated more quickly.
Despite a common misconception, alcohol itself doesn’t actually contain any fat – it’s just packed full of calories, especially if you add sugary mixers. However, despite ‘balancing out’ the number of calories in a certain day to a near average amount – those who remove meals in place of alcohol are actively putting themselves at risk because the calories in alcohol are effectively empty calories, with no nutritional benefit at all.
In an article for the Telegraph, Professor Janet Treasure, the head of the eating disorder unit at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, described the practice as a ‘toxic combination’, causing physical and mental damage and increasing the risk of alcoholism.
She said: “They get fully hooked; it is an extremely noxious thing. It is more common with bulimia than anorexia but you get the combination of empty calories with no nutritional value and the risky behaviour that goes with being drunk.”
Separately, depriving the brain of adequate nutrition and consuming large amounts of alcohol can be dangerous, but together then can cause both cause short- and long-term cognitive problems including difficulty concentrating, studying and making decisions.
Worryingly, the most likely demographic to suffer from this type of disorder are female university students, who suddenly find themselves faced with a pressure to remain thin whilst drinking heavily and regularly. Women metabolise alcohol in a different way to men, which makes them more susceptible to damage to their vital organs, as well as in danger of alcohol poisoning, risky sexual behaviour and chronic diseases in later life, research has shown.
“I know there are probably long term health consequences, but there are risks of that anyway from drinking heavily, whether or not you eat your tea or not beforehand. I work hard at the gym and don’t want to ruin my figure from calorific jager bombs or whatever. If anything, eating a meal before I went out would probably mean that I’d buy more shots,” the unnamed third year explained.
The drinking culture that is deeply embedded within the lifestyle of UK university students combined with the pressure to look good is perhaps the reason why many have adopted these unhealthy practices and now it as normal behaviour.
Lawrence Brown, Senior Communications Officer for the eating disorder charity B-eat, said: “Going to university is a time of upheaval which can be difficult for those at risk or in recovery from an eating disorder, particularly as it often involves leaving established support networks, it is important that students are aware of the services within their university where they can get the help they need.”
Despite the growing issue on university campuses, and the obvious need for wider discussion surrounding this type of behaviour, there are problems with the term drunkorexia, as B-eat want to emphasise that this is not a medical diagnosis but a colloquial term.
Talking about the dangers of creating slang for serious illness, Lawrence Brown said: “We know that some people with eating disorders, especially bulimia nervosa, can also have an unhealthy consumption of alcohol. We also know how important it is the all eating disorders are taken seriously- they can be deadly, and claim more lives than any other mental illness. People with eating disorders can be so ashamed of themselves and feel they are not even worthy of treatment. That is why we encourage people not to just add ‘orexia’ to the end of a word when there is a real danger of trivialising a serious illness.”
There is help available for those who fear they may be suffering from eating disorder or alcohol abuse behaviours.
B-eat, the UK’s largest eating disorder charity, as well as the alcohol abuse charity Drink Aware, are offering information, helplines and online forums for those who are worried or seeking help.
The University of Huddersfield’s Wellbeing Services are also available for students, and they can be contacted at: 01484 472675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why alcohol and an empty stomach definitely don’t mix –
- If you haven’t eaten for several hours, the body could experience low blood sugar, characterised by hunger, headaches or feeling shaky.
- Low blood sugar from under-eating can cause cravings for high-carb, sugary foods, meaning you are more likely to cave and get a takeaway if you’re drunk.
- Cravings for alcohol can also rise dramatically. The brain instinctively knows alcohol will hit the bloodstream quickly and raise blood sugar, potentially triggering addictive behaviours.
- To avoid blood sugar fluctuations, eat meals throughout the day.
- Eating some protein and healthy carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables and whole grains can keep the mind alert and able to maintain abstinence from alcohol.
Finding a healthy balance…
- Moderation, not elimination. Restricting food before drinking may leave you overly hungry and vulnerable to binge eating late at night. Eating moderate portions throughout your day is the best way to prevent excessive hunger and reduces the likelihood of overeating
- Working out regularly will help you maintain a healthy weight so there is no need to deprive yourself of food
- The lighter the spirit, the fewer the calories, so vodka is a better option than dark rum. Pick diet mixers and avid sugary cocktails and wine.