"Drunkorexia" refers to the practice of eating less so that you can drink more, either in pursuit of thinness or a major buzz—or both. According to data presented at a conference last year, it's also incredibly common, occurring in more than 80 percent of youthful boozers. It's a chicken-and-egg question as to whether it's more of an eating disorder or an alcohol abuse issue, though. "Some people see this as one type of disordered eating. Some people think this is just one part of risky drinking," says Dipali Rinker, a assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston. Last June, Rinker presented findings on the phenomenon at the 39th Annual Research Society on Alcoholism in New Orleans, and she found that it occurs in both populations.
"It's a fairly common thing among heavy drinkers and among those with an eating disorder," Rinker says. Her data examined the drinking habits of 1,184 heavy drinking college students between the ages of 18 and 26, and found that 81 percent of them reported engaging in drunkorexic behaviors over a three-month period. Rinker was surprised to learn that drunkorexia affected men and women about equally, at least in the study population. No matter the motivation, it's bad news—both physically and socially. "If you're not getting calories from food and you're getting calories from alcohol, you're getting a lot of empty calories," she says. "You have concerns about dehydration, vitamin depletion. You're just drinking in a riskier way."
We spoke with three people under condition of anonymity who identified themselves as problem drinkers, all of whom have struggled with drunkorexia at some point in their lives. It wasn't pretty for any of them.
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"I literally thought I came up with this term drunkorexia, and I thought it was brilliant."
I found out that if my stomach was empty, I didn't have to drink as much. I literally thought I came up with this term drunkorexia, and I thought it was brilliant. Freshman year, I thought it was funny; I was always getting more drunk than my friends and doing really crazy things. I was always getting in trouble with my sorority.
I was from a really small town and I was used to working and going to school. I didn't have to work my freshman year and I didn't have a car, so I was always on campus. I didn't do budgeting at all—the first time I got my student loans I blew it at a strip club. The next year I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. It was stress-induced. I would have to run out of class and have diarrhea. That kept going until I was 26 or 27. I think alcohol caused my intestinal distress.
When I moved into the sorority house, there would be girls who ate nothing but a can of corn to stave away hunger pains. I think we all kept it pretty private. At least one of them had issues with mental health and alcohol. I still have some disordered eating stuff—binge eating. I love food. I have no self-control when it comes to food. I ended up gaining a lot of weight instead of losing.
"I got it down to a science."
In the punk scene, everybody's drinking beer and starving themselves. It's kind of a subconscious thing going on. Sure, it's a blast, it's like violence to your system. People just do it. Around here on Saturdays and Sundays and even during the week, having a Bloody Mary is like every fuckin' day. It's really accepted for the most part, having a pretty substantial drinking problem. You don't have to do that much to avoid problems. It's like, socially accepted.
Nobody told me about [drunkorexia]. I just, like, figured it out. I got it down to a science. If it's greasy food, it'll soak up. You can drink so much if you eat cheeseburgers.
I would eat until I was only like, so hungry—what I needed for energy to move or go to work. I think I didn't eat something too long and I got super sick, where I was like vomiting and having dysentery for like 12 hours straight. I went to the hospital and they kept me for four days.
It wasn't directly related to eating. I'm good at cooking, my roommate's good at cooking. But it helps if you don't have set meals and you just don't eat. It was just, why would I eat? Alcohol, at that point, it's like your life energy.
"Me getting drunk faster from starving myself, that was just a bonus point."
My first addiction ever was to food, and not eating food. My favorite thing was, I'm either going to eat all of the food or none of the food—that was my signature move.
I remember being six years old and I went to some weird Catholic school. They were giving us peanut butter sandwiches with vegetables in them. I wanted to have another one and the nun was like, 'No, you're going to gain weight and you don't need any more.' In that moment, I learned that it had to be a secret, and eating was harmful, and being hungry was shameful. When I learned how to ignore my hunger, that felt like a massive achievement.
I was a magician at eating disorders; I loved the feeling of hunger. Hunger became a new addiction. Me getting drunk faster from starving myself, that was just a bonus point. The icing on the cake and the proof of my not needing to eat.
One of my signature moves was at the end of my drinking journey—I would come home and be super stressed and I would be like 'Okay, I can make dinner or I can drink two bottles of wine. Except I know I'm gonna drink the wine anyway, so why don't we just cut to the chase?' So I would have the wine, and have sex with my neighbor, and eat a pizza. It would lead to uncontrollable binges, like I was let out of my cage. I would wake up fatter than ever, like an actual piece of shit.
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