A cadaverous Amy Winehouse has been called one. So too the bottle-clutching pre-rehab Lindsay Lohan. And while “drunkorexic” isn’t a medical term, the slang word describing women who skip food in order to drink booze without gaining weight is increasingly on the lips of medical experts. Appearing first on gossip sites tagging skeletal celebrities who appear to live only off of Grey Goose and cigarettes, talk of drunkorexia can now be found on health blogs next to better-known eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia, orthorexia (obsession with healthy foods) or even pregorexia (pregnant women who strive to look un-pregnant by not eating). News reports about the phenomenon warn that drunkorexia is rapidly growing among college-aged women trying to avoid beer bellies without cutting out the beer—but dependable statistics on the newly identified illness are hard to come by. “Until someone says ‘I’m not eating all day so I can drink tonight’—until those people come forward in a study, they’re not going to show up in our numbers,” says Sharon Vanin, a nutritionist who has been treating eating disorders for over 20 years.
Drunkorexia may be statistically elusive but it’s mainstream enough that a recent episode of the A&E show Intervention featured a young drunkorexic man named Asa whose family staged an intervention. According to Diet-Blog.com, 30 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds skip food in order to drink more. And it’s often the hard stuff. “I hardly see women ordering beer anymore. A lot more men are ordering vodkas too,” says Amy Taylor, managing bartender at Mink Nightclub in Toronto, where the diet trend has forced the club to stock more vodka because the low-sugar content makes it attractive for calorie counters.
The blasé attitude some have regarding the disease is scary. “I don’t see the problem with trading food for alcohol. Honestly, all you are doing is taking in different calories,” posted “Nat” on Diet-Blog.com in June. Apart from the dangers of substituting alcoholic calories for ones with nutritional value, there is also evidence the disorder can worsen your dependence on alcohol. (A 2003 study by researchers at Columbia University found that people with eating disorders are up to five times more likely to become substance abusers; it also found more links in cross-addictions, as substance abusers are 11 times more likely to have an eating disorder.) And while experts like Vanin may have never heard of the term until recently, over the years she’s “definitely” seen the behaviour. “I see people compromising their eating so that there can be the calories left for alcohol. It’s the same as some people not eating all day because they are going to a banquet at night.”
A starving body, says Vanin, isn’t able to deal with stress or make healthy decisions. “Inhibitions are compromised. Suicide attempts, promiscuity, dangerous driving and other risky behaviours compound the problem.” While long-term effects of disordered eating include osteoporosis, cardiac problems and even death, immediate signs of malnutrition aren’t visible as our bodies are adept at compensating for a lack of nutrients for a period of time. But eventually, “hair starts to thin, their nails don’t grow, they become constipated and bloated,” says Vanin. She’s treated people from age 12 to age 65, and insists a patient see a health team (including a therapist, physician, nutritionist and, if warranted, an addiction specialist) to address the many facets of eating disorders.
But getting a drunkorexic into treatment can be problematic. “They view family trying to drag them in as jealous,” says Dr. Carol Kostynuk, a consulting psychiatrist and medical director with the Eating Disorder Education Organization (EDEO). While Kostynuk says she only recently heard of drunkorexia, she says at least five per cent of her patients exhibit this type of behaviour. In therapy, Kostynuk gets people to start a food diary of everything they eat so both she and the client can have a clearer picture of the eating patterns. “Control is a big word we use in the industry. These people are experts at hiding their illness,” she says.
Frightening, considering the death rate for people who have had eating disorders ranges between 18 and 20 per cent in 30-year follow-up studies, according to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre. As “Susanna” wrote about drunkorexia on Diet–Blog.com “Unfortunately, I know a woman (and she is well beyond her college years) who… must have 12 light beers a day and this adds up to 1,200 calories. She spends the rest of the day eating carrot and celery sticks with a small bag of pretzels. She is killing herself inside out.”