“Drunkorexia” is a growing and dangerous trend among young women, a new study shows.

The first empirical study with Australian women shows the problem is actually more severe in Australia, with nearly 60 per cent of female university students sampled admitting to regular drunkorexia behaviour.

Drunkorexia is the use of dietary restriction, exercise, self-induced purging, and other extreme weight-control behaviours, to offset the calories anticipated or ingested from drinking alcohol and until this research the problem had only been measured anecdotally in Australia.

“I had come across research that was conducted in America suggesting young female adults had begun a new problematic trend that intertwined two major health problems in Western countries - disordered eating and alcohol misuse – but I couldn’t find any evidence for its prevalence in Australia,” says University of South Australia School of Psychology Social Work and Social Policy researcher Alissa Knight.

“Although drunkorexia is currently a non-medical term, concern is rising steadily among health professionals, about the effects that drunkorexia-type behaviour can have on cognitive, behavioural, and physical health outcomes.”

A considerable percentage (57.7 per cent) of the sample group reported frequently engaging in various disordered eating and other extreme weight-control behaviours 25 per cent of the time or more in the three months before, while at, or after a planned drinking event, to compensate for anticipated alcohol calories.

The most common drunkorexia behaviours in young female university students were; skipping meals before a drinking event (37.5 per cent), consuming low-calorie or sugar-free alcoholic beverages during a drinking event (46.3 per cent), and exercising after a drinking event (51.2 per cent).

“These are dangerous behaviours because evidence shows young female adults who are binge drinking on an empty stomach or after strenuous exercise, have increased alcohol toxicity, which dramatically increases their risk of developing serious physical and psychological health consequences, including hypoglycaemia, liver cirrhosis, nutritional deficits, brain and heart damage, memory lapses, blackouts, depression and cognitive deficits,” Alissa says.

“In general when alcohol is not involved these girls lead a normal life without any disordered eating behaviours. This finding suggests that drunkorexia may represent a new subtype of eating disorder that differs from traditional eating disorders on the basis of the underlying motivation.

“Whereas traditional eating disorders are generally motivated by an underlying desire to be thin and to be in control, drunkorexia predominately appears to be motivated by a desire to drink large quantities of alcohol alongside the desire to be thin.

“Drunkorexia appears to have evolved from the need for young girls to meet possibly the two most prominent social norms for young adults – drinking and thinness.”