College students replace meals with alcohol

Thursday, July 10th 2008, 11:24 pm
By: News 9

By Kirsten McIntyre, NEWS 9

Young women face incredible pressure to be thin, but experts warned that today's college-age group faces a dangerous combination of pressures. Not only are they bombarded with "stick thin" images, but they're pressured to fit in on the party scene as well. The mix has created a destructive behavior, some doctors said.

"There's a tremendous weight consciousness out there," Dr. Douglas Bunnell of The Renfrew Center said. "At the same time, you have people drinking and sort of encouraged to drink."

Bunnell, an eating disorders specialist, said he's treating more young women who are giving up food calories for alcohol. Although not an actual condition, some have dubbed it "drunkorexia."

"You know at the extreme, drunkorexia can lead to people being so badly nourished that their abilities to function cognitively and emotionally are impaired," Bunnell said.

Lynn Grefe, chief executive officer of the National Eating Disorders Association, is concerned as well.

"The drunkorexic is really adding onto the problem of anorexia; and they truly need counseling before the problem goes too far," Grefe said.

Piper, a 21-year-old college student, admits she's had food issues for years, but things got much worse when she went away to college.

"I think it was more just, there was more social interaction with other people and I just, we were going out more so I had to watch what I was eating when I was going out," Piper said.

Piper said she and her friends counted calories to stay within a certain limit when they went out on the town.

"Beer was like, you don't drink beer unless you like haven't eaten all day," Piper said.

While some of the young women are diagnosed anorexics, many others went to school normal, healthy eaters, but are panicking about those extra college pounds.

"My concern about the drunkorexia phenomenon is that it starts people on a pattern of disordered eating that can push them in the direction of a formal disorder," Bunnell said.

Piper said she has seen some pretty extreme justifications.

"I know some girls who, they'll replace some of their drinks with things they think are more nutritious, like Bloody Marys, 'cause it has like tomato juice in it. They think that can replace a meal," Piper said.

Whether the person is still a teen or a twenty-something, Bunnell warns against ignoring certain signs.

"If you are doing mental algebra to compensate or manage your drinking in response to your eating, simply that sign is worrisome," Bunnell said.

Piper has changed schools and with help from her family and counselors, she is on the way back to a healthy weight.

"In college, if you struggle with the food and the drinking, that's your life, that's who you are rather than the school," Piper said.

If you know someone who might be struggling with the issue of giving up food calories for alcohol, the National Eating Disorders Association asks you call their helpline at 1-800-931-2237.