New health problem, ‘drunkorexia,’ invades SDSU

by Alicia Chavez, Senior Staff Writer

The end of the semester is near. While some students are trying to make the best out of the next few weeks, health professionals are concerned with recent drinking behavior on college campuses.

Although “drunkorexia” is not an official eating disorder or medical term, health professionals are concerned with the growing trend of poor nutritional habits associated with binge-drinking.

Jennifer Lombardi, the executive director for the Eating and Recovery Center, said mental health professionals describe “drunkorexia” as an extreme dieting routine combined with heavy exercise in order to offset caloric alcohol intake when binge-drinking.

“Drunkorexia” may include skipping meals in order to strengthen the effects alcohol. Lombardi said drinking heavy amounts of alcohol on an empty stomach can lead to stronger levels of impairment and intoxication, but can also lead to alcohol poisoning.

Both men and women are at risk for developing eating disorders, however research shows more women are affected. According to the Eating Recovery Center, 31 percent of female college students will suffer from an eating disorder while in school, and 91 percent of females have used a form of dieting to control their weight. Lombardi believes “drunkorexia” could increase these numbers.

“In a culture obsessed with thinness and dieting combined with diet-focused alcoholic advertising targeted at young people, college students are constantly on the receiving end of messages encouraging drinking and being ‘thin,’ ‘beautiful’ or ‘fit,’” Lombardi said.

Professor Mark Kern of San Diego State’s School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences believes students have developed their own strategies while drinking. One of those strategies includes drinking before or in place of eating in order to feel stronger effects associated with alcohol.

“Among college students, I think there is a lot of balancing food and beverages, part of it is for weight and part of it is for intoxication,” Kern said.

Lombardi said the concern lies with freshmen students who are undergoing a great transition in their lives, such as moving out of the family home. With the addition of other pressures, students are dealing with a substantial amount of stress in their lives, which may be the trigger for an eating disorder.

The “freshman 15” myth can also have a negative impact on students. Lombardi said freshmen students may take extreme measures to stay thin, such as conserving calories at dinner.

“Fear of gaining the ‘freshman 15’ can instigate real eating disorders among students,” Lombardi said. “Scared they may gain weight, someone may avoid food to counteract what they think is an imminent weight gain, to the point where it becomes unhealthy and obsessive.”

Aside from medically recognized eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, “drunkorexia” may be an alternative way students try to avoid the “freshman 15.” Additionally, intense alcohol advertising has recently reinforced the pressures to stay thin, especially alcoholic brands aimed at a female audience.

“With emerging ‘skinny alcohol’ brands gaining popularity, especially with females, binge drinking and dieting are no longer mutually exclusive,” Lombardi said. “Somehow, drinking heavily but not gaining weight has become an impossible expectation too many girls and boys are trying to achieve.”

The long-term effects “drunkorexia” can have on your body are more dangerous due to the combination of binge drinking and malnutrition. Lombardi said long-term effects of “drunkorexia” include gastritis and ulcers. In the meantime, binge-drinking and malnutrition can affect a student’s focus while studying, but can also influence decision making.

Kern believes substituting calories from food with alcohol sounds more negative than it actually is. Students who choose to lighten their food intake on days they plan on drinking are not adding excess calories to their diet. Kern, however, said students should keep foods providing the nutrients necessary for a healthy diet in their daily caloric count.

“If you’re drinking so much that you’re displacing real food from your diet to the point where you can end up with a nutritional deficiency, then that’s bad,” Kern said. “People’s behavior needs to be smart no matter what they’re drinking.”

In order to reduce the number of students affected by “drunkorexia,” the goal is to raise awareness about the long-term effects of the issue.

“While ‘drunkorexia’ is not a medical term and official symptoms do not exist, warning signs are often similar to those suffering from a diagnosable eating disorder,” Lombardi said.

Kern stressed the importance of eating a well balanced diet, such as “My Plate,” if intending to consume alcohol. However, students should already be eating a nutritional diet on a daily basis.

Another goal in Lombardi’s opinion is helping students feel more comfortable in their own bodies to live a healthier and happier life. It is important to help those suffering from a medically recognized eating disorder or “drunkorexia” find the support they need.