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The Worrying Rise Of "Drunkorexia"

Illustration by Assa Ariyoshi.
“I enjoy drinking and don’t want to waste valuable calories on food. I’d rather have multiple rum and cokes than lunch," one 25-year-old woman told Refinery29 on the condition of anonymity.

“I often skip meals and I know it’s unhealthy not to eat before drinking, but I don't have a fast metabolism and am trying to slim down. Skipping meals allows me to enjoy myself more when I’m out with friends."

Many of us will openly admit to – or even joke about – eating extra fruit and veg or going on a long jog in an attempt to “undo” the excesses of a big night.

But far fewer will go on the record as saying they've restricted the calories they’ve consumed through food to “spend” them on alcohol instead.

Media outlets call this worrying behaviour "drunkorexia" – a medical-sounding term that isn't actually recognised by the NHS, at least not on its website. Years of media coverage has created a moral panic around the subject.

This means that instead of changing our ways or seeking help for a dangerous habit with very real health ramifications, many of us don't want to admit to doing something that's so taboo.

While the habit is nothing new – the Daily Mail, for example, wrote about it as a new trend as far back as 2008 – people are still doing it. Diet and fitness trackers make it easier than ever to track our calorie intake, while at the same time we all know that YOLO. There's huge pressure to show we're living a party lifestyle on social media – and for many of us that means binge drinking.

According to new research, as many as 40% of 25–34 year-olds and 39% of 18–24 year-olds skip meals to save the calories for drinking.

Benenden's National Health Report 2016, which questioned 3,000 men and women on health issues, found an almost equal proportion of men and women engage in "drunkorexic" behaviour: 19% of women compared to 17% of men.

However, there was a stark age gap. Skipping food to save calories for alcohol is virtually unheard of among older generations. Fewer than 10% of over 55s and just 12% of 45–54 year-olds said they’d ever eaten less so they could drink more, the research found.

The report also found that when young people do choose to eat healthily, 41% admitted to doing it to lose weight (compared to just 17% of over 55s who said the same thing), rather than their overall well-being.

Speaking to many young people, it's clear the main attraction of "carrying over" calories to a night out is that it allows them to enjoy Instagram-worthy moments with friends while maintaining their weight.

One 28-year old man told Refinery29 that as long as he's getting nutrients from somewhere, he doesn't see a problem with cutting out meals in favour of alcohol. “If I know I’m going out on a big one, I’ll eat more strictly during the day. I’ll focus on getting as much protein in my meals as possible for the fewest calories, so I’ll eat things like chicken and turkey breasts to keep me full.

"I then make sure I dance enough to burn off the excess calories. I don’t do it that often – probably once a week – so I wouldn’t say it’s particularly dangerous.”

While skipping meals before drinking may seem a logical way to keep your weight down, it won’t necessarily mean you end up consuming fewer calories in total, the Benenden report said.

Many people are unaware of just how calorific alcohol is, and that alcohol consumption can lead you to eat more than usual. Alcohol has a high energy value of seven calories per gram, second only to fat – “the most energy dense macronutrient” – at nine calories per gram, the report said.

Elaine Hindal, chief executive of alcohol education charity Drinkaware, said: "While it’s good to be aware of the calories you’re drinking, what can seem like a harmless tactic can turn into a dangerous obsession," the Daily Mail reported.

"Skipping meals can cause acute alcohol poisoning, leading to confusion, vomiting and passing out.

She continued: "Doing this regularly can put you at risk of chronic health harms like liver, heart disease and some types of cancer."

"If you are watching your weight, it is best to cut back on alcohol rather than food. Alcohol is full of empty calories, which have no nutritional value."

The recent news that some of us underestimate the number of calories we consume by up to 50% suggests that perhaps the answer lies in becoming more "mindful" when it comes to food.

We need to develop a greater awareness of what we're eating on a daily basis, rather than skipping meals altogether. It all comes back to one word: balance.