Add another to the list of debilitating eating disorders, which includes anorexia and bulimia.
A new phenomenon has surfaced on campuses in the form of what media and medical professionals are calling drunkorexia, which is a combination of binge drinking and existing eating disorders.
Students, in an effort to keep their weight under control or, in some cases, balance their checkbook, limit their food calorie intake during the day to 500 or fewer or purge to compensate for the alcohol calories they plan to consume later that night.
Over the summer, the Eating Disorder Center of Denver saw a larger number of college-aged females struggling with both eating disorders and heavy binge drinking than seen in the past enter its program.
“It’s a different presentation,” said Tamara Pryor, the clinical director of the EDC-D. “The first summer we ran into this particular combination.”
Binge drinking is classified as consuming alcohol at least four times a week with four to seven drinks at one sitting. Bulimia nervosa, which is an eating disorder where victims binge eat, then vomit their meal, is more commonly associated with binge drinking.
“There has not been much connection with anorexia because anorexics need high levels of control with their diet,” Pryor said.
The Pressure to “Fit-In”
Near the beginning of the school year, beer pong tables and signs that read “U Honk, We Drink” line the yards surrounding campus.
Pryor said nearly 44 percent of college students engage in binge drinking.
This campus lifestyle may be partly to blame for the drunkorexia trend as the pressure to fit into the status quo rattles the vulnerable, especially freshmen.
College students are at “a particularly high risk” for developing both alcohol abuse and eating disorders because of higher stress and peer pressure levels, said Diana Hill, clinical director of the La Luna Center, an eating disorder treatment facility in Fort Collins.
“Unfortunately these messages often normalize substance abuse and promote unhealthy and extreme dieting practices,” Hill said in an e-mail message to the Collegian.
“Their identity is so wrapped up in it. They are facing choices like . ‘Who am I if I’m not drinking or not the fun girl?'” Pryor said.
According to preliminary research, students involved with fraternities and sororities are at a higher risk for these disorders, she said.
Pryor added that more freshman women binge drink than men, but, in juniors and seniors, the ratio is flipped.
Alcohol can also act as a social lubricant in uncomfortable situations among those thirsting for acceptance, she said.
“It’s used to numb out fear,” she said.
With eating disorders, there is also social anxiety. People tend to have a distorted body image, so drinking alcohol makes them more physically and socially comfortable, Pryor said.
But campus culture is only one of many reasons, which include family history of addiction, that students develop these habits.
“It isn’t necessarily one thing,” said Beth Hardy, an admissions assessment clinician at the EDC-D. “It’s a number of factors . (It’s) a correlation between genetics, environment, social and character factors and temperament.”
Hill said many of the clients she works with use alcohol and food as a way to deal with negative emotions like anxiety, depression and anger.
The financial cost of alcohol is another reason students cut back on their food intake.
Jeff Wayland, junior zoology major, said his friend’s girlfriend cuts back on groceries so she can have more money to drink.
He has seen that this behavior is more prevalent in college and said students want to drink as much as they can for the smallest cost possible. But he questions their motives when they drink on an empty stomach.
“It doesn’t make sense to me. They’re just hurting themselves more,” Wayland said.
Pryor said many students who seek help for drunkorexia desire to change their abnormal eating but wish to keep binge drinking because it’s such a common activity in college.
“They came here specifically for the eating disorders, but when it came time to (address) the binge drinking factor, they said ‘I don’t want to give it up’ . They still see value in it even with the negative consequences,” Pryor said.
Solutions for Change
Hardy and Pryor say the best solution is to promote awareness for the problem and find new techniques for coping with stress to curb their alcohol consumption.
“Students must challenge the status-quo and create alternatives . like have fun and let off steam without self-destruction . affirm the individual in a creative and healthy environment,” Hardy said.
The EDC-D hosts a 10-hour counseling program that includes class and therapy sessions like art assessments, a nutrition class, cognitive therapy and family relations. Three meals and a snack are provided every day.
Pryor said this program is unique in that it allows the patients to transition to a normal lifestyle. Apartments specifically for patients are located on South Cherry Street in Denver across the street from the facility.
Staff Writer Lauren Leete can be reached at email@example.com.