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Beauty over brains: Drunkorexia puts students in medical danger

By Olivia Braude
On April 25, 2014

It is Friday night, the weekend, the start of a break from the stress of college and time to relax. For many students, this night begins with a pre-game where they will down a few drinks before they hit the bars Uptown. But body-conscious students may find a fun Friday out comes with a hefty price tag in the form of calories.

Two Natty Lights: 200 calories. One Trashcan: 350 calories. Two Screwdrivers: 400 calories. A trip to Jimmy Johns to satisfy the alcohol-induced craving: 500 calories.

For concerned students, preparations for this caloric expenditure began earlier in the day. They began with each missed meal, each step on the treadmill, each and every thought about compensating for the calories consumed later that evening. These actions, termed colloquially as "drunkorexic behaviors," are little-known disordered eating habits affecting students who do not want to choose between partying and having the perfect body.

According to Miami University junior Abby Gilligan, drunkorexia has three main components: restricting calories or skipping meals in anticipation of drinking, drinking to excess and inducing vomiting to purge calories and working out in order to burn the calories from drinking.

Gilligan, a kinesiology and nutrition double-major, focused her research on the over-exercising behavior of drunkorexia, hypothesizing males would be more likely than females to compensate for alcohol calories by hitting the gym.

"I actually thought that males would exhibit the behaviors more than females just because the research said that males consume more alcohol than females and workout more than females and just, keeping those two things in mind, I thought that just in terms of exercise, that males would exhibit that behavior more than females," Gilligan said.

Her results surprised her because although they showed a positive correlation between alcohol consumption and exercise in general, Gilligan did not find much difference in the number of times men chose to compensate for a night out by over-exercising and the number of times women chose the same compensatory behavior.

Rose Marie Ward, a professor in the Kinesiology and Health Department, has been studying drunkorexia on Miami's campus for the past few years. She conducts her research by surveying students using questions based on past studies.

Ward's interest in Miami's potential problem with disordered eating was sparked by talks among faculty and students claiming one in five Miami students had an eating disorder.

"I didn't believe it," Ward said, "We wouldn't have the resources on campus to deal with that."

Her latest research centered on the motives for drunkorexic behaviors-restricting calories, over-exercising or purging-and she found that people participated for social reasons, in order to get drunk faster, to save calories and to cope with certain emotions.

"The interesting thing for us was that people have a conscious thought about the alcohol," Ward said.

Senior nutrition major Teresa Schwendler studied the correlation between dieting behaviors and social situations, such as pre-gaming. Her results emphasized those found by Ward's most recent research in regards to the social reasons for drunkorexic behaviors.

"In social environments where there is alcohol being consumed, those people who are consuming alcohol for the social aspect are more likely to have dieting behaviors," Schwendler said.

In other words, people who enjoy pre-gaming on Friday and Saturday nights are more likely to restrict their intake, purge or over-exercise in order to compensate for the calories from the alcohol they drank.

Gilligan, Ward and Schwendler stressed that research on drunkorexia is limited and more is necessary to prove anything about drunkorexic behaviors and what causes them.

"We don't know exact motivations behind the people [surveyed] but that's something our lab is trying to look into more," Gilligan said. "But it's hard to figure that out."

The lack of research is one of the main reasons Gilligan and Schwendler chose this topic to explore further.

"Since a lot of people don't know about it, I feel like some people might participate in that behavior and not really realize that it can lead to other problems or not even realize that it's a problem in itself," Gilligan said.

Gilligan suggested Miami adding drunkorexia and drunkorexic behaviors to part of the AlchoholEdu program required of Miami first-year students.

Schwendler went one step further and called attention to the physical dangers of drunkorexia.

"Because alcohol is considered to be something that doesn't have any nutritional value to it, it's kind of like empty calories, and so if you're restricting your food intake and you're only consuming alcohol, you're not getting any of those vitamins and minerals, you're not getting protein or fat, whether it's good or bad, you're really not getting the type of nutrients you need from your food, you're just consuming alcohol," Schwendler said.

If the drunkorexic behaviors occur frequently enough, malnutrition may result, Schwendler said.

In addition, drunkorexia has the potential to lead to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, or it may lead to alcoholism.

Despite all the negative side-effects of engaging in drunkorexic behaviors, a news release from the Eating Disorder Center of Denver concluded drunkorexia is on the rise.

The trend of more men and women skipping meals or over-exercising to compensate for calories, or intentionally drinking to the point of vomiting, has several potential causes.

"I think that the media probably has a lot to do with it. Body image and the whole thing with the freshman 15," Gilligan said, "A lot of students are drinking more than they did in high school and I think people are more conscious of, or trying to make up for that in a sense, so they feel like they have to over-exercise."

Schwendler also blamed the media and the images they portray as the "perfect" male and female body.

The combination of body-image pressures and the pressure to drink can result in students taking desperate actions to control their weight.

"Just in general, our social environment, media, everybody wants to be thin, but then there's also, especially in college, there's the want to go out and drink and be intoxicated because it's fun and people enjoy themselves, but I think it can be dangerous," Schwendler said.

Ward said she would like to see students become less conscious of the calories they are drinking, and instead learn to drink responsibly.

It is not uncommon, Gilligan said, to hear someone comment about drinking too much at a pre-game party Friday night and needing to step on the treadmill in order to make up for it.

According to her, whether ignorant or not, students are engaging in drunkorexic behaviors and until more research is done on the subject, it appears that will not change.


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