2 Concerning Motivations Behind 'Drunkorexia'—A New Disorder On The Rise

Combining disordered eating habits with excessive alcohol consumption can be dangerous. Here's how, and why people are doing it.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 10, 2024

"Drunkorexia," a portmanteau of the words "drunk" and "anorexia," refers to a worrisome trend that combines alcohol abuse and disordered eating behaviors. Some researchers believe that it may represent a new eating disorder while others find that it cannot be solely classified as either an eating disorder or a substance abuse disorder but has elements of both.

Research shows that behaviors associated with drunkorexia include fasting, binge drinking and getting drunk. Although not yet an official medical diagnosis, the term highlights a planned pattern of behavior where individuals restrict their food intake, engage in excessive exercise or in purging to "make room" or compensate for the high caloric content of alcohol they will consume.

This behavior is particularly prevalent among college students and young adults. For instance, in a research sample of Australian female university students, over 79.1% of participants reported engaging in Drunkorexia behavior.

Drunkorexia poses significant health risks, including nutritional deficiencies, a weakened immune system, an increased risk of alcohol poisoning, organ damage, exacerbated mental health issues and more.

Here are two underlying motivations behind drunkorexia.

1. A Drive For Thinness

A fear of gaining weight from alcohol calories is one of the primary factors enabling drunkorexia behavior. A 2020 study found that a higher drive for thinness is associated with higher levels of drunkorexia.

The drive for thinness is largely due to societal and cultural pressures that idealize slim body types as the epitome of beauty, success and health. This is perpetuated through media portrayals, fashion industry standards and social media, which often glorify and normalize unrealistic body shapes and sizes.

This pervasive idealization of thinness can lead to body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors and a relentless pursuit of weight loss, often at the expense of physical and mental health.

Research shows that due to this widespread overemphasis on thinness, women tend to have more weight concerns than men. Researchers also found that women who are heavy drinkers especially seek to control their weight, making them more susceptible to drunkorexia.

2. Alleviating Uncomfortable Emotions

Research shows that drunkorexia can often stem from "conformity drinking," which refers to drinking due to social pressure and a fear of missing out or being rejected by others. The consumption of alcohol, often in large amounts, is highly normalized and even glamorized as a means of celebration, social bonding and stress relief, so much so that abstaining can be met with stigma.

Drunkorexia can then become a coping mechanism for emotional and psychological stressors. A 2020 study found that experiencing anxiety, depression and lower levels of emotional regulation were associated with such behavior.

"Adolescents who experience both elevated anxiety and emotional dysregulation may be more likely to turn to drunkorexia to reduce their unregulated negative affect in the absence of more adaptive emotion regulation strategies," the researchers explain.

Research shows that experiencing lower levels of self-esteem related to one's body and appearance can also give rise to self-critical thoughts and overwhelming negative emotions that fuel drunkorexia.

A 2022 study mirrored these findings. Researchers found that anxiety surrounding body image and weight gain can incite unhealthy eating attitudes linked to drunkorexia. These behaviors become a "safety measure" and alleviate anxiety by ensuring the individual does not gain the weight they are afraid of.

Researchers also found that drunkorexia is used as a coping tool and a means of distraction to escape higher levels of negative emotions, perceived stress and depression associated with negative self-perception. Individuals who struggle with regulating these intense emotions and seek a sense of control are more susceptible to engaging in these behaviors.

Additionally a 2019 study found that drunkorexia is associated with a lack of awareness around internal bodily sensations such as hunger and satiety signals. Researchers highlight the importance of tuning in to emotional and physical signals from the mind and body, without feeling guilty or threatened by these needs, to have a healthier relationship with anything you consume.

In fact, a 2022 study found that mindfulness could be an important tool in battling drunkorexia as it is associated with lower levels of disordered eating and alcohol use. Researchers found that higher levels of complete attentiveness to the present moment and a non-judgmental attitude towards oneself were associated with lower levels of drunkorexia.

Drunkorexia deserves serious attention and intervention. Addressing it often requires professional guidance, a supportive environment, self-reflection, increased awareness of your coping mechanisms and whether they are truly serving you as well as a conscious effort to counteract inner critical thoughts with self-compassion. Healing your relationship with food and alcohol is absolutely possible—the key lies in nurturing a healthier relationship with yourself.

Wondering whether you have an unhealthy relationship with food? Take this test to find out: Eating Attitudes Test

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