'Drunkorexia' is a thing - and an increasing issue for female Australian university students

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Young women are starving themselves and saving calories to binge on alcohol, with nearly 60% of female university students admitting to regular “drunkorexia” behaviour according to a major university study.

While already recognised as a trend in the US, the problem appears even more severe in Australia according to the first empirical study by a University of South Australia PhD student.

“Drunkorexia” is defined as the use of dietary restriction, exercise, self-induced purging, and other extreme weight-control behaviours, to offset the calories anticipated or ingested from alcohol.

UniSA School of Psychology Social Work and Social Policy PhD student, Alissa Knight’s research into the phenomenon is published in Australian Psychologist today.

She looked for students who engaged in drunkorexia as a stand-alone problem, excluding those who had other eating disorders.

While some students reported engaging in eating disorder type behaviour regularly, an unexpectedly high number said they used starvation, purging, extreme exercise or taking laxatives in the lead up to events such as a Saturday night party.

“Whereas traditional eating disorders are generally motivated by an underlying desire to be thin and to be in control, drunkorexia predominately appears to be motivated by a desire to drink large quantities of alcohol alongside the desire to be thin,” Knight said.

“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.”

Knight said that while “drunkorexia” was currently a non-medical term, the issue was a growing concern among health professionals and her study found alarmingly high numbers of young women engaged in the practice.

“A considerable percentage (57.7%) of our sample reported frequently engaging in various disordered eating and other extreme weight-control behaviours 25% of the time or more in the three months before, while at, or after a planned drinking event, to compensate for anticipated alcohol calories.

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

Knight said the behaviours had the added danger of increased alcohol toxicity by binge drinking on an empty stomach or after strenuous exercise.

And those with higher levels of overall drunkorexia behaviours were more likely to binge drink, her research found.

UniSA psychology clinic director, Dr Susan Simpson, who supervised Knight, said those issues have the potential to cause more long-term damage to women.

“Women typically weigh less, have less alcohol-metabolising enzymes, and less total body water to dilute alcohol in the blood, and these differences in alcohol metabolism make them more vulnerable than men in developing cirrhosis, brain damage, or other health conditions resulting from alcohol misuse,” she said.

Knight surveyed 136 female undergraduate students, drawn from 43 universities Australia-wide and aged between 18 and 25, who had drunk alcohol in the past three months.

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