Studies have shown drunkorexia to be a prevalent and dangerous trend among young people in the US but the first empirical study with Australian girls shows the problem is actually more severe in Australia with nearly 60% of female university students sampled admitting to regular drunkorexia behaviour.
Drunkorexia is the use of dietary restriction, exercise, self-induced purging, and other extreme weight-control behaviours, to offset the calories anticipated or ingested from drinking alcohol and until this research the problem had only been measured anecdotally in Australia.
UniSA School of Psychology Social Work and Social Policy PhD student, Alissa Knight’s ground-breaking research into the frequency of drunkorexia behaviours in Australian undergraduate female university students has been published in Australian Psychologist today.
“I had come across research that was conducted in America suggesting young female adults had begun a new problematic trend that intertwined two major health problems in Western countries – disordered eating and alcohol misuse – but I couldn’t find any evidence for its prevalence in Australia,” Alissa says.
“Although drunkorexia is currently a non-medical term, concern is rising steadily among health professionals, about the effects that drunkorexia-type behaviour can have on cognitive, behavioural, and physical health outcomes.
“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%).
“These are dangerous behaviours because evidence shows young female adults who are binge drinking on an empty stomach or after strenuous exercise, have increased alcohol toxicity, which dramatically increases their risk of developing serious physical and psychological health consequences, including hypoglycaemia, liver cirrhosis, nutritional deficits, brain and heart damage, memory lapses, blackouts, depression and cognitive deficits.”
The research, led by Alissa Knight and supervised by UniSA Psychology Clinic Director, Dr Susan Simpson, also revealed the unique finding that while some students reported engaging in eating disorder type behaviour regularly, an unexpected number reported they only used behaviours such as starvation, purging, extreme exercise or taking laxatives when they anticipated the use of alcohol, such as on a Saturday night at a party.
“In general when alcohol is not involved these girls lead a normal life without any disordered eating behaviours. This finding suggests that drunkorexia may represent a new subtype of eating disorder that differs from traditional eating disorders on the basis of the underlying motivation,” Alissa says.
“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.
“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.”
Alissa and Dr Simpson’s research also revealed that participants with higher levels of overall drunkorexia behaviours were more likely to binge drink, raising further concerns for the health and well-being of young female adults, who are known to be three times more likely than men to display drunkorexia behaviours.
“Heavy alcohol use on an empty stomach, or following strenuous exercise, is known to be vastly more dangerous than merely binge drinking because of increased blood alcohol levels, with women at greater risk than men,” Dr Simpson says.
“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.”
“Clinicians, parents and educators need to become aware of the way in which drunkorexia-type behaviours may be affecting the physical and psychological health of young female adults in Australia so that they can provide essential information to those at risk.”
Research Study Notes:
Study participants (136) met the following inclusion criteria: female, a current undergraduate Australian university student, between the ages of 18 and 25, and had consumed alcohol within the past three months.
The study focused on healthy (non-clinical) female Australian university students, and one of the main research questions was to identify whether or not there was a specific population among an Australian female university study sample who engaged in drunkorexia as a stand-alone problem (compared with those who have symptoms of drunkorexia comorbidity with clinical anorexia nervosa [AN] and bulimia nervosa [BN]), so exclusion criteria included a female having an Eating Disorder Diagnostic Scale (EDDS) rating.
Most participants (86%) were Caucasian, with 11% reporting being European and 2.9% Asian, which was representative of the ethnic representation among this Australian study body.
(Source: University of South Australia, Australian Psychologist)