A large number of college students are skipping meals, exercising excessively or purging before going out with the goal of getting drunk faster, according to a new study presented at the 39th Annual Research Society on Alcoholism Scientific Meeting in June.
The practice known as “drunkorexia” refers to a variety of diet-related behaviors, including fasting, vomiting, binge eating and taking laxatives before drinking alcohol.
Researchers from the University of Houston surveyed 1,184 college students who participated in at least one episode of heavy drinking during the past month. Heavy drinking was defined as women consuming four or more beverages and men consuming five or more beverages on one occasion.
The results of the web-based survey revealed that 81 percent of respondents reported participating in drunkorexia behavior at least once in the past three months.
“Our data suggest that college students are more likely to engage in these specific compensatory behaviors if they are athletes, are already heavy drinkers, are coping with negative emotions, are engaging in disordered eating practices already, and, most importantly, because they perceive it to be a highly normative behavior among college students,” lead author Dr. Dipali Rinker told Medscape.
The average age of respondents was 22.3 years old. Almost two-thirds were white, and 60 percent were women. Previous research indicated women might be at a higher risk for drunkorexia behavior than men because of weight concerns. However, Rinker’s study contested that belief.
“Our study suggested that males are just as likely, if not more likely, to engage in these behaviors,” Rinker said. “We suspect that this is because men, in general, just tend to engage in riskier drinking behaviors than women.”
College students were more likely to engage in risky behaviors involving alcohol if they lived in fraternity or sorority houses. Students living in residence halls were at the second highest risk, and students who lived at home were at the lowest risk. The authors hypothesized that stress from school and living away from home for the first time may contribute to high-risk behavior.
Drunkorexia presents several risks for college students, a population already known for engaging in risky behaviors involving alcohol.
“Engaging in these behaviors is associated with heavier and more problematic drinking and alcohol-related consequences, such as blacking out, getting into fights, passing out or driving under the influence,” Rinker said.
Drunkorexia isn’t a new drinking trend among college students, but Rinker’s research seems to indicate that it’s growing in popularity among students who drink heavily. Previous research on those at the highest risk for drunkorexia has been inconsistent.
In 2010, researchers from East Carolina University and Oklahoma State University surveyed 692 freshmen and found that 14 percent engaged in drunkorexia behavior. Most respondents did so to avoid weight gain or enhance the effects of alcohol, and nearly equal numbers of men and women engaged in drunkorexia behavior.
One year later, a study by University of Missouri researchers found that women were more than twice as likely as men to restrict calories before drinking and that the vast majority did so to avoid weight gain. The study also found an association between students’ attendance at fraternity parties and their likelihood of engaging in drunkorexia behavior.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of American College Health found that women were more likely than men to restrict calories before drinking and women who drank heavily and had strong concerns about their weight were at the highest risk for drunkorexia.
Preventing students from drinking heavily and convincing them to drink responsibly has historically been a challenge for colleges and universities.
“[Clinicians] can provide information to college students that indicates that these behaviors are far less normative than they think they are and can encourage students to eat and exercise in a healthy manner,” Rinker said.