Drunkorexia; almost no food to be able to drink

In 2016, Emma moved to Utrecht for her studies, and she ended up in student housing. “It was great fun, but we ate unhealthy food in our house, and we drank massive amounts of beer. I went out to party at least twice a week, and these nights traditionally ended with greasy fried snacks. It didn’t take long for these eating habits to start changing my body. For the first time in my life, I had love handles. That bothered me a lot.”

She says that while living at her parents’ house, she’d always eaten healthy food. She also had a slim body. She felt faced with a dilemma. “I didn’t want to miss out on the fun of going out, but I also didn’t want to gain even bigger fat rolls.” To combat that, she decided to eat less on days she’d planned to go out, and skipped the traditional middle-of-the-night snacks. “That seemed like the perfect solution, because I could be present at every party and drink right along with the others, without gaining weight,” Emma says.

Slowly but surely, she started eating less and less to be able to drink just as much as ever. “In the beginning, I’d eat two or three light meals a day – all no carbs. But this evolved to eating only twice a day, max. I’d eat 200 grams of non-fat yoghurt with a whiff of cinnamon. Nothing in the afternoon, and a piece of cooked chicken or a light salad for dinner. I even took it so far that I sometimes ate only an apple a day, three days in a row.”

This typical ‘diet’ is known as drunkorexia. It’s classified as not quite an eating disorder, and not quite an addiction: it doesn’t fit sufficient criteria to be called an official eating disorder, but it’s behaviour concerning enough that it’s also not ‘normal’.

Unhealthy calories
The dangers of drunkorexia, nutrition psychologist Diana van Dijken says, is mostly in the aspect of it being an unhealthy eating pattern. “When you spend too long not eating enough, your body will feel the serious consequences. You become malnourished. If you started out with a few pounds too many, you’ll first simply lose the excess weight. But after that, you start to become malnourished in terms of vitamins, minerals, proteins. You start to break down your muscles, too much protein enters your blood stream, and that’s bad for your kidneys. How far these consequences reach depends on how often you compensate drinking by eating less, how much you actually eat, and what you eat then. The consequences, then, are wildly diverse, and some will experience much more negative effects than others.”

Van Dijken also warns that the calories you get from healthy food can never be compensated by getting calories from alcohol. Alcohol doesn’t contain vitamins and minerals, nor does it contain good carbs, fats, and protein. The negative effects of alcohol also increase when you don’t eat healthy food. Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach has a lot more negative effects than drinking when you’ve eaten, she says. “Your body simply responds differently, and you’ll get drunk much quicker, you’re much more prone to alcohol poisoning or passing out.”

Drunkorexia is not quite an eating disorder
Linda Duits, media scientist at Utrecht University, says drunkorexia isn’t just a thing of these times. “In the 1980’s, there was a similar ‘white wine diet’. The term drunkorexia or alcoholrexia is really an erroneous one. It sounds like it’s derived from anorexia, when it’s not. Anorexia is a serious, mental health disorder, with much deeper causes.”

Duits says drunkorexia is a phenomenon that’s made up and blown up by the media. “If someone drinks a lot and doesn’t eat, that doesn’t mean it’s an eating disorder. Compare it to different food. Let’s say someone’s only eating cake, does that mean that person suddenly has cakeorexia? That’s nonsense.”

Like Duits, Van Dijken doubts that drunkorexia is a disease. “It’s a choice of compensating your drinking by eating less. In principle, I think it’s not a mental health disorder. It’s disturbed behaviour, naturally, and when someone behaves that way for a long time, it can cause mental health issues, but it’s not clear how widespread it is, because so little research has been done.”

Van Dijken continues: “The behaviour that comes with drunkorexia can have some seriously nasty long-term consequences, so I don’t agree with Linda’s opinion that it’s not dangerous. But if it’s just a handful of students, of course the dangerous are a lot less visible than when half of all students behave this way…”

Social pressure to drink and be skinny
One thing Duits is concerned about, is the social pressure of being skinny. “For centuries there’s been pressure, mostly on girls, of conforming to the beauty standards. Be pretty and skinny. Girls are taught they’ll be judged for their looks. Amongst students, there’s more and more pressure these days not just to drink alcohol, but to drink a lot of alcohol. This is often beer.”

Emma says she feels that pressure too. When she started with her studies, she was shocked to see the amounts of alcohol drunk at the average college party. “In the beginning, I sometimes spent some party nights sober, but you have no idea how depressing that is. You have to explain to everyone why you’re not drinking, and if you just say ‘I’m not drinking tonight’, you’re treated as though you’re crazy. These days it’s weirder not to drink than it is to drink. I feel like it should be the other way around.” Eventually, she joined the culture of drinking alcohol. “It drove me crazy to be looked at weirdly, or to be excluded during drinking games, when I wasn’t drinking. It was more fun to join in.”

Drinking, eating, working out
Emma compensated her alcoholic calories for over two years. “Eventually, I started to realise the way I was living wasn’t sustainable. After a few days of fasting, I’d get binge eating moods. I’d start out by eating a dry rice cracker, for instance, but then a beast awoke inside me and I’d have to eat a lot. I’d grab everything I could, I even ate my housemate’s frozen bread once. My body was screaming for nutrition. To prevent these binges, I started eating a little more during the day. I allowed myself to eat a little more often, and it felt good. I could join my housemates or friends for dinner more often, and that was even more fun than the drunken nights.”

Another thing that helped her, is that she confided in a friend, telling her all about her eating issues. “I did it when I noticed that friends of mine who got drunk and ate regularly didn’t get fat. I wondered how they did that. That friend taught me that if I ate ‘regularly’, and worked out every now and then, I could enjoy a bit of a drink at night as well. We started practising this together, while I kept a firm eye on the scale, and it turned out I didn’t gain any weight at all!”

One thing Emma is still struggling with: the copious amounts of alcohol imbibed by students. “To me it’s an unhealthy amount, but I’m not sure what I’d be able to do about it. And anyway, I participate in it, too … .”