I’m not going to lie. For as long as I’ve struggled with alcohol, I’ve equally struggled with my weight. My relationship with alcohol is not completely disconnected to my relationship with food. While in the past I would lose control while drinking, I fought hard against myself to control my eating. What started with weighing food to military precision, making sure I was only taking in well under 1000 calories a day, turned into cutting out foods then cutting out entire meals.
While I’ve swung between bulimia and anorexia for most of my adult life, from binge eating to being addicted to exercise, the entire time I continued to drink. While people would comment on how skinny I looked, I didn’t see the look of worry flash across their face, and instead focused on the word skinny, flushing with pride. As long as I didn’t put on weight, I was fine. But of course, as I lost weight and continued to not eat properly, I also lost my tolerance to alcohol, blacking out much quicker than when I had been heavier.
The thing is, I didn’t know this had a name until earlier this week, when sitting down for a team meeting Laura said, “why don’t we do something on Drunkorexia?”. My mind reeled slightly. After getting to a place where I am happy with my relationship with alcohol, I have continued to avoid dealing with food. So, rather tentatively, I delve into the world of Drunkorexia, what it is, its harms and what exactly are the consequences of drinking on an empty stomach.
Drink Aware define a drunkorexic as “someone who skips meals so they can binge drink without putting on weight”. Urban Dictionary elaborates it as, “a non-medical term used to characterize calorie counters who starve themselves or purge their food but still drink alcohol. It tends to affect female college students who try to lose or maintain their weight, but still party with alcohol”.
Drunkorexia is a colloquial term for self-imposed starvation or binge eating/purging combined with alcohol abuse. The term is generally used to denote the utilisation of extreme weight control methods (starvation or purging) as a tool to compensate for planned binge drinking. It’s a relatively new term, but the condition is not. Worryingly, it seems like an increasingly socially acceptable norm – I’ve had many conversations with women my age on how little we ate/how much we drank the night before.
It mostly affects weight conscious women, primarily in their teens and twenties, but of course there is spillover. Additionally, there are known cases of men suffering from it too. The alcohol industry as a whole aggressively targets people with weight-conscious marketing, tapping straight into body anxiety.
To balance out a night on the town means an evening – or a day – without a proper meal. Sam Waterhouse, nutrition expert shares her story, “My own experience with this was when I was doing weight watchers many years ago and used to ‘save’ the points for a Friday night. I know that they (weight watchers) became aware of this tactic and changed their point system. I think this happens a lot with diet programmes. You could also add over-exercise to compensate for booze calories i.e. hitting the gym for hours to go out on a Saturday night – this is also a real problem for men and women”.
We’ve all heard the expression “to line the stomach” before a night out and there is actually a science behind it. When you drink alcohol on an empty stomach, alcohol travels straight to the bloodstream, and as the blood alcohol concentration rises, the loss of control increases.
Once the alcohol is in the bloodstream, it is quickly distributed throughout the body causing the blood vessels to widen and result in feelings of warmth, a decrease in pulse rate and blood pressure. It travels through the stomach, kidneys, lungs, liver and brain.
85% of alcohol is broken down in the liver while 15% is in the stomach, where an enzyme called Alcohol Dehydrogenase found in the lining breaks the alcohol down before it can hit the bloodstream. Drinking on empty causes rapid gastric emptying, effectively reducing the time alcohol is exposed to the enzyme, resulting into a faster ingestion into your bloodstream at a greater concentration.
So, alcohol’s effect is intensified on an empty stomach. But, the combination of not eating enough and drinking too much can easily wreak havoc on the human body.
There are both immediate and long-term consequences for drunkorexia. The immediate concern is that extreme degree of intoxication and impairment. The possibility of blacking out and getting injured or assaulted is increased.
The long-term medical consequences are equally concerning. Alcohol consists of empty calories; therefore, over time, malnutrition will develop due to lack of consuming healthy food. Other health problems such as ulcers and gastritis could develop. Moreover, that type of extreme involvement with alcohol can easily segway into an unhealthy relationship.
And then of course, there are the ‘hidden’ impacts. Drinking can increase anxiety, depression, self-loathing, particularly heightened after a blackout and found within low self esteem.
Society needs to wake up to how prevalent drunkorexia is in our communities, before working towards a solution. If people continue to ignore this as a very dangerous issue, deaths from alcohol and anorexia will continue in the pattern they’ve taken, while those afflicted will remain unnoticed.
At the end of the day, the healthiest way of managing your weight is to cut out or down on alcohol, not food. By removing alcohol a bit or completely from the equation, not only does this allow us to remove the ‘Pasta or Wine?’ scenario, but generally gain a greater clarity on our everyday lives. Harriet Waley-Cohen works closely with positive body image, often writing about different kinds of heath issues relating to primary and secondary foods to nourish you, recipes ideas and updates about her coaching practise on her blog Get The Wellness Edge. It’s no secret that alcohol often just exacerbates our other problems. In cutting booze back or out, this opens up an opportunity to explore our own positive body image and set things in motion to be happier and healthier.
You could do worse than visiting your GP. Have a look for local support groups, drinking and/or food, as often (which I have suddenly very much realised) these issues are not isolated from one another. And talk to your friends. Turns out, I have a lot more people in my life who struggle with some form of eating disorder as well as drinking. Though I’m only just opening up about it, there is strength in connecting with people who understand and love the hell out of you.