Niki Bezzant: Are you suffering drunkorexia?

Young women are skipping meals to drink. Photo / Getty Images
Young women are skipping meals to drink. Photo / Getty Images

Disordered eating is, sadly, a serious problem. The term applies to more than what we typically think of as eating disorders: anorexia and bulimia.

It applies to a range of behaviours around food and eating and can include an obsession with healthy eating (often fuelled by social media), binge eating and other skewed relationships with food.

A worrying trend that has been highlighted in recent Australian research has been termed "drunkorexia", and it's distressingly prevalent in young women.

This is the habit of using extreme dieting, exercise, self-induced purging, and other extreme weight-control behaviours, to offset the calorie intake from a session of drinking.

Researchers at the University of South Australia looked at female students, and found that nearly 60 per cent of the sample group reported "frequently engaging in various disordered eating and other extreme weight-control behaviours 25 per cent 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 drunkorexia behaviours included skipping meals before a drinking event: in effect substituting alcohol for food.

Even more worrying was the surprising discovery that these behaviours were practised by many young women whose eating habits were otherwise normal.

"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", the researchers said.

They point out that whereas the motivation for traditional eating disorders is an underlying 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."

The fact that drinking is one of the most prominent social norms for young women is incredibly depressing for us as a society.

There's no reason to think the situation here is any different from Australia. We both have harmful binge-drinking cultures, and this culture still seems to be ingrained in our young people.

We are getting no wiser when it comes to alcohol, and we are failing to guide our children - especially our young women - that drinking to excess is not cool, and it's definitely not healthy.

Yet right now, we know more than we've ever known about the harm of alcohol.

We know there's strong evidence alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer. We know the evidence that alcohol is good for us is regularly over-stated. We know binge drinking is especially harmful, leading to a range of short and long-term health problems. We know excessive drinking makes you look bad, causing premature ageing and weight gain.

We know all of this, and yet we don't know how to change a culture in which it is normal for a young woman to consciously miss a meal or two so she can go out and get drunk.

- Herald on Sunday

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