20% of students cut back on food before going out drinking: study says
Nearly one in five university students deliberately curb how much they eat before going out drinking, suggests a new Canadian study that offers more evidence of the so-called “drunkorexia” phenomenon on campus.
The behaviour is not — as sometimes portrayed in the past — just about young women trying to control their weight while binging on alcohol, the research indicates.
Almost as many male as female students restrict their food intake before hitting the bottle, and the motivations include both calorie watching and simply wanting to get drunk faster, the study of 3,400 undergraduates concluded.
Regardless, experts say the behaviour is concerning, not least because it could hasten the risks of over-drinking — from impaired driving to unprotected sex, physical injury and sexual assault.
“I think it’s much more unhealthy than just drinking and just dieting,” says Kaley Roosen, the psychology PhD student at York University who headed the study, just published in the Journal of Health Psychology. “Doing it together magnifies the negative effects of alcohol.”
‘Many students in Canadian universities are placed under huge stress with unreasonably high workloads, growing debts and minimal income’
Substituting booze for food is also plainly unhealthy — nutritionally, alcohol offers little more than sugar, notes Tim Stockwell, director of the University of Victoria’s centre for addictions research. And it may point to deeper-seated pressures, he argues.
“Many students in Canadian universities are placed under huge stress with unreasonably high workloads, growing debts and minimal income,” he says. “These factors need to be addressed to help them achieve health and wellbeing, as well as academic advancement.”
The phenomenon was first identified about five years ago, bolstered since by a few studies among U.S. college students. Meanwhile, statistics indicate that binge drinking generally has been on the rise among young people in Canada and other industrialized nations, even as overall alcohol consumption per capita has dropped.
Though dubbed drunkorexia in the media, addictions and mental-health experts tend to eschew the term, feeling it makes light of potentially very worrisome behaviour.
Ms. Roosen’s work would appear to be the first large-scale Canadian research to find evidence that it is happening among college-age young people here, too.
Of the 3,400 first-year psychology students she and colleagues surveyed, about 30% said they at least sometimes ate more before heading out to drink — often citing it as a way to avoid getting sick or being hungover.
About 18% — somewhat more than half of them women — said they ate less, a few even going without food for a whole day before drinking bouts. Similar numbers said they did so to avoid gaining weight and to become intoxicated more rapidly.
In a second, related study of 226 female students, the researchers found those who ate less for weight reasons scored higher on eating-disorder symptoms, while those who wanted to get drunk faster tested higher for signs of depression or dependency problems.
Though there is no historical data, Ms. Roosen suspects drunkorexia is a modern-day phenomenon.
“Our culture has become more obsessed with weight loss and dieting,” she says. “Were looking for more and more ways to have our cake and eat it too. We want to go out and drink and lose weight at the same time.”
Dr. Corine Carlisle, head of the youth addictions service at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says she observes the behaviour among her young patients.
“It’s a very important phenomenon, and it’s not the only way young people modify the effects of alcohol,” she says.
For Carlisle, the phenomenon could be at least a sign of a serious eating disorder or mental-health problem in the making, and is another reason for primary-care doctors to screen young people for troublesome drinking habits.