OPINION: Promoting body positivity to prevent drunkorexic behaviors

Graphic by Julia Read

By Sarah Etuk, Laura Haetzel, and Kayla Lanker

CW: Mentions of eating disorders

In a limited online survey of 39 students conducted at the 5Cs, we posed the question “What makes you healthy?” The results showed that most students believe regular exercising, a normal sleep schedule, socializing, and eating nutritious foods — living a “balanced” lifestyle — make you healthy.

However, when asked how often they ate before drinking, only 59 percent responded often or almost always, indicating that students are not always following behaviors they deem healthy.

Indeed, of the 39 students who took our survey, 44 percent reported having intentionally restricted their calories prior to drinking in order to avoid gaining weight at least once. 36 percent reported restricting their calories prior to drinking in order to feel the effects of alcohol at least once. And 31 percent reported drinking in excess so as to throw-up at least once.

These behaviors, when repeated and difficult to control, are indicative of drunkorexia.  

The phenomenon loosely termed “drunkorexia,” or more recently named “food and alcohol disturbance” by Emily Choquette, Diana Rancourt, and Kevin Thompson, is not officially considered a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). But it is still a health issue. Drunkorexia, according to scientists at the University of Chieti, Italy, entails an “extreme form of weight control to compensate planned binge drinking.”

It is a fairly recent phenomenon that has concerned researchers studying undergraduate populations in Italy, Australia, and the United States since at least 2014.

Food and substance use disorders are classified as separate in diagnostic systems. The emergence of drunkorexia prompts us to reconsider this framework, especially since reduced caloric intake before drinking exacerbates the consequences of heavy substance use, such as blacking out, compromised immune function, aggressive behavior, and increased risk of sexual assault.

A study conducted in an American undergraduate population found that one third of undergraduate students engaged in restrictive eating before alcohol consumption. However, several studies have observed that those who identify as women are more prone to drunkorexia than men.

Additionally, sexual objectification has been linked to food-restricted alcohol consumption in women but not in men. All in all, these findings suggest that drunkorexia is entangled in larger social and cultural issues around sexual objectification, body image, and drinking.

Frankly, the prevalence of drunkorexia on college campuses, coupled with the lack of attention surrounding it, is concerning. Eating disorders are highly prevalent on college campuses, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, and students with eating disorders may be at increased risk for drunkorexia.  

Across the Claremont Colleges, one could find a number of resources geared toward reducing heavy substance use, but very little toward reducing drunkorexia. This may be because we don’t view engaging in behaviors aimed at controlling weight as problematic, as society still places a higher value on being thin than on being healthy.

There are a number of actions that individuals and organizations on campus can take to combat this phenomenon. Studies have shown that first-year college students are at an increased risk of developing drunkorexia.

To decrease the prevalence of drunkorexia in college students, the education course required of incoming students at Pomona College, Teaching Alcohol Abuse Prevention Program, could incorporate a section on drunkorexia. The other Claremont Colleges could implement this in their own alcohol training programs as well.

Additionally, studies have also shown that interventions aimed at improving body image are effective in reducing drunkorexic behaviors. Given this, it might be effective for groups such as the Peer Health Educators at different colleges and the Pomona College Women’s Union to host events and start campaigns aimed at celebrating the diversity of body types on our campuses.

On an individual level, we could be more mindful of how our words and actions might promote unhealthy eating and substance use behaviors. For example, instead of encouraging our friends to “get blackout drunk,” we could instead suggest that they keep track of the number of drinks they consume in a night.

Similarly, we could stop making comments about how much we’ll need to run in order to burn off a drink, and instead incorporate exercise into our weekly routines. These actions combined will ensure that we are doing our part to reduce drunkorexic behaviors.  

Sarah Etuk PO ’19, Laura Haetzel PO ’19, and Kayla Lanker PO ’19 are neuroscience majors. This article is based on a paper written for Professor Sara Masland’s “Psychological Disorders” class.

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