Drunkorexia Is on the Rise—but What Is It?

Drunk woman
A woman slumps on the pavement, Bristol, England, February 5, 2005. One in five people in Britain starve themselves so they can drink alcohol in place of lost calories. Matt Cardy/Getty

A report by U.K.-based healthcare society has found that one in five people starve themselves so they can drink alcohol in place of lost calories.

The practice has been labeled "drunkorexia"—a combination of "drunk" and "anorexia" turned into a slang, non-medical term that refers to the intentional practice of restricting food calories to make room for alcoholic drink calories.

The findings about levels of drunkorexia come as part of Benenden's National Health Report 2016—which also found most people choose to eat healthy meals for their appearance rather than their overall wellbeing.

Of those asked, 41 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds said they ate healthily purely with a view to looking good without any concern for their overall health.

Despite younger generations showing a more reckless attitude to alcohol replacing meals, the report showed a lack of knowledge across all ages.

It questioned 3,000 men and women of all ages on a variety of topics, ranging from eating, drinking and exercise habits to how the NHS is run.

Why is "drunkorexia" on the rise?

The motivation behind drunkorexia is one of the lesser understood aspects of the condition, but it is suspected that the predominant factors in its development are a distorted self perception combined with unrealistic standards of beauty and body image; peer pressure in terms of social drinking; a coping mechanism for anxiety and depression; or a means of getting intoxicated rapidly in response to stress.

The condition is more prevalent in young women, although men also experience it, and in extreme cases the behaviors may be related to bulimia or anorexia, in which the alcohol is used to make vomiting easier or to help manage eating anxieties.

A study in 1983 investigated whether individuals who regularly participated in binge drinking, or were alcohol dependent, had a more distorted self perception than those individuals who were not abusing alcohol. The study measured the relative rate of body image distortion by asking a group of participants who were not alcohol abusers and a group of participants who were alcohol dependent to estimate the length and width of 22 different body parts, including the shoulders, arms, chest, etc. Interestingly, the results showed that those individuals who were alcohol abusers saw their body parts as much larger than they actually were, indicating a distorted perception of self.

The results from this study indicate that there may be a link between those who are predispositioned to engage in alcohol-dependent or binge drinking behavior and a distorted perception of self.

Other motivations for so-called drunkorexia include preventing weight gain, saving money that would be spent on food to buy alcohol, and getting intoxicated faster—another cost-saving exercise, as there will be no need to buy as many drinks. This explains why the "condition" is more commonly found in young, college or university-age students.

What are the effects of "drunkorexia"?

The combination of self-starvation and alcohol abuse can lead to serious physical and psychological consequences. Drinking in a state of malnutrition can predispose individuals to a higher rate of blackouts, alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related injury, violence, or illness.

Drinking on an empty stomach allows ethanol to reach the blood system at a swifter pace and raises a person's blood alcohol content quickly, sometimes at dangerous speed. This can make the drinker more vulnerable to alcohol-related brain damage. Alcohol abuse also has a detrimental impact on hydration and the body's retention of minerals and nutrients.

These harmful consequences can be more easily induced in women, as men's bodies are able to metabolize alcohol faster than women's. It can lead to short-term and long-term cognitive problems including difficulty concentrating and difficulty making decisions. It also increases the risk of developing more serious eating disorders or alcohol abuse problems. Binge drinking is also a risk factor in violence, unprotected sex, alcohol poisoning, substance abuse and chronic disease later in life.

So, is there a link between eating disorders and alcoholism?

Although drunkorexia is not a recognised medical term, there are similar links between eating disorders and substance abuse, with studies revealing people experiencing an eating disorder are at a higher risk of developing substance abuse problems.

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in six people in the U.S. have a drinking problem and approximately 10 million Americans are believed to suffer from potentially life-threatening eating disorders.

A 2013 report in the U.S. examining the relationship between eating disorders and substance abuse revealed that anorexia and bulimia are the eating disorders most commonly linked to substance abuse, and up to half of people with eating disorders abuse alcohol or illicit drugs.

What do the experts say?

"While it's good to be aware of the calories you're drinking, what can seem like a harmless tactic can turn into a dangerous obsession," said Drinkaware chief executive Elaine Hindal.

"Skipping meals can cause acute alcohol poisoning, leading to confusion, vomiting and passing out. Doing this regularly can put you at risk of chronic health harms like liver, heart disease and some types of cancer. If you are watching your weight, it is best to cut back on alcohol rather than food. Alcohol is full of empty calories, which have no nutritional value," she added.