If you've been to college, you've probably heard stories about those girls who skip meals in order to reserve the extra calories for alcohol. It's sort of like the stories about how the pipes in certain sorority houses are corroded because so many of the girls who live there are bulimic.
In the course of her work as an assistant professor of social work and public health at the University of Missouri (and as a former college student herself), Victoria Osborne had heard those stories, too. But since her primary area of research is alcoholism prevention, she decided to look a little more closely into what the New York Times and other publications have started calling "drunkorexia."
Osborne notes that while people talk about drunkorexia, she only knows of two studies -- not counting her own -- that examine the connections between alcohol dependence and eating disorders. "It's something that's been around for a while," she says, "but no one talked about it. It was seen as a norm, not a big deal. It wasn't systematically studied. But now scientists are more interested in learning what's going on -- because it could become a serious problem."
Over the course of four semesters, Osborne and her colleagues distributed surveys to 2000 students enrolled in a large lecture course, Introduction to Psychology. (Yes, another familiar trope of college life: psych students being used as guinea pigs for studies.) The survey included ten questions about eating and drinking habits. She found that 16 percent of the students could be considered drunkorexics, that is, voluntarily skipping a meal or two in order to have more calories for drinking. The vast majority were female, but there were a few males as well.
"The motivation was based on gender," Osborne explains. "The men are more likely to want to save money. The women want to prevent weight gain. They also want to get drunk faster."
Wait, isn't it a point of pride to be able to hold one's liquor?
"It's different from when I was a college student," Osborne admits. "I'm in my late thirties. But based on anecdotal evidence, just from talking with students, it seems like the purpose of binge drinking is to pass out. I need to look more into that."
Osborne's survey also asked students about their involvement in Greek life. She found that it didn't matter if students were Greek or non-Greek: As long as they attended Greek parties, they were likely to be drunkorexics.
In the next phase of her research, Osborne also plans to ask students about how much they exercise, since excessive exercising is another symptom of disordered eating. She also wants to work on creating a clinical definition for drunkorexia, something less vague than "skipping meals in order to drink more."
"We want to find a correlation between drunkorexic behavior and the development of eating disorders," she explains. "It's not like Weight Watchers. It's not calorie management, like 'Oh, I'm going to skip dessert so I can have another glass of wine.' This is more extreme."
In the meantime, Osborne has started working with Mizzou's Wellness Resource Center to create an awareness campaign, similar to the one the center already uses to discourage students from drinking and driving.
"My ultimate goal," she says, "is to develop a preventative program -- not just on the college level. I want to see how much it happens in the general population."