By Holly Nall
College students are no strangers to foregoing food. Eating takes time and money, two things students are almost always short on. But some students are going to extreme lengths to cut costs.
Skipping meals before a night of drinking is a growing trend known as “drunkorexia,” and experts say it can have damaging effects on students’ health.
A 2011 study done at the University of Missouri found that approximately 16 percent of students were limiting their caloric intake from food in order to “save” the calories for drinking.
Undeclared SF State student Dylan Garruto knows this method well.
“I usually drink on an empty stomach,” he said. “I save calories and I get more drunk.”
Diet trade-offs are a common occurrence, according to SF State nutritionist Teresa Leu, who provides counseling in the student health center.
“I can’t say it is unusual for people to restrict in one aspect of the diet to compensate for another,” Leu said. “Less dinner in order to eat dessert, diet soda in order to have the cheeseburger, skip lunch in order to eat large dinners out.”
Leu advises consuming food before drinking, and increasing awareness of just how much alcohol is being consumed.
The exchange of alcohol for food can be a particularly unsafe one, and Jennifer Lombardi, executive director of Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program, stresses the risks of mixing these behaviors.
“Binge drinking in and of itself is a dangerous thing to do, but if you add to that mix heavy restrictive eating, dieting or even exercise, it really puts people’s lives at risk,” she said.
Lombardi, who battled anorexia as a young adult, recently visited the SF State nursing department to give a lecture on eating disorders and their warning signs.
For some, the pressure of the infamous “freshman 15,” the weight that students are expected to gain during the first year they live on campus, may be a factor in developing these habits. According to Lombardi, this fear of weight gain paired with a prevalent social drinking scene leads many students to re-prioritize.
“They are wanting to fit in, feel like part of a social group,” she said, “and drinking is one of the ways people try to fit in.”
Lombardi suggests that this fear of weight gain may be based on nothing more than a cultural myth. A 2011 study done at Ohio State University showed the perception of the “freshman 15” to be inaccurate. Researchers surveyed more than 5,000 college students nationwide and discovered that the average weight gain was 1 to 3 pounds, which is normal for young adults.
Drinking, diet and exercise are common ways for college students to de-stress, but the wrong combination can actually impair learning. The University of Missouri study described several cognitive side effects of drunkorexia, including difficulty concentrating, studying and making decisions.
For many students, drinking responsibly means eating beforehand. Animation major Megan Madrigal chooses not to skip meals before consuming alcohol.
“I always try to eat before I drink,” she said. “Especially if I’m planning to drink a lot… I should probably get some protein in me.”
In addition to the cognitive side effects, the University of Missouri study revealed that drunkorexia increases the risk of “violence, risky sexual behavior, alcohol poisoning, substance abuse and chronic diseases later in life.”
French major Slam Binley tries to avoid losing control by eating before she goes out drinking.
“If I don’t eat, that’s like a surefire way to wake up and not know where I am,” she said.
Like many students, however, Binley is occasionally forced to make a choice due to financial constraints.
“When I only have $5, and I have to choose between a beer and a sandwich, I’m going to pick the beer,” she said.
Urban studies and planning major Alex Smith takes another approach, and prefers to eat after he drinks.
“It’s a lot more fun that way, you get a lot drunker, and then become more sober afterwards,” he said. “The ‘drunkies’ are way better than the munchies, let me tell you that.“
When drunkorexia becomes a compulsive behavior, Lombardi emphasizes the importance of treatment.
“It’s extremely important that if you know somebody, or if you yourself are struggling, the first step is absolutely getting an assessment,” she said. “Trying to stop on your own usually doesn’t go so well.”
Free one-on-one nutrition counseling is available from the peers’ nutrition assessment clinic in the student health center on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1-4 p.m.