I Don’t Buy This Whole ‘Drunkorexia’ Thing

College kids are starving themselves, then going out and getting drunk. Some have dubbed the trend "drunkorexia." But is it really anything new?

Penn’s student newspaper the Daily Pennsylvanian posted a story earlier this week making the case locally for a national “trend” that’s been wildly reported in the media over the past six months. It’s called “drunkorexia,” defined as the dangerous intersection of eating disorder and alcohol dependency, in which a person (typically, females) restricts or purges food calories to make room for liquid ones in the form of booze.

The reporter cites Penn students who say they’ve witnessed this behavior, friends who refuse food all day long so they can make up the calories in beer at a frat party later on. They say it helps them maintain a slim figure and allows them to “process the alcohol better,” according to the article.

The piece (and others like it) quotes expert after expert who preach about the precipitous rise of college binge drinking and how drunkorexia is actually a psychological disorder, of the sort that requires rehab and counseling to overcome. The Penn article even quotes a psychologist who says there should be treatment programs specifically tailored to drunkorexics, ones that combine alcohol counseling with support for eating disorders.

Whoa, there. Before we start laying the bricks for these places, let’s take a deep breath, step back and reassess for a second, ok?

To me—and please, correct me if I’m wrong—this doesn’t seem like the new, out-of-nowhere phenomenon people are making it out to be. Isn’t it practically cliche at this point to talk about binge drinking on college campuses? Despite the fact that it’s super unhealthy and, yes, even dangerous, drinking and partying have become a rite of passage for many college students. Another cliche: talking about the poor eating habits of college students, whether intentional (“I want to lose weight”) or not (“I’m broke and don’t have money for dinner”).

But wrapping it all together and giving it a name like drunkorexia, then going so far as to call it a psychological disorder? That seems just a tad extreme. To me, what we’re really talking about here is what we’ve always talked about when it comes to these issues: college kids making poor decisions in the name of getting drunk—nothing more.

“In more severe instances,” writes DP reporter Laura Cofsky, “[drunkorexia] is a co-morbid disorder—the combination of a diagnosable eating disorder and alcohol dependency, both of which are genetically-driven.”

Sure, there are definitely college students with eating disorders (I lived in a dorm with one of them), and certainly there are ones who also drink a lot. And of course, combining the two is clearly dangerous to a person’s long-term health. But I think that couching a college binge drinking “trend”—and the poor eating habits that go along with it—as a condition or disorder in which genetics plays a role simply provides a convenient excuse for bad behavior. After all, if your genes make you fast and drink, it’s probably not something you can control, so you might as well go to the frat party on Friday night and drink yourself silly. Right?

I’d also argue that the whole “skip a meal so I can get drunk tonight” mentality isn’t confined to the college set. As a friend of mine put it, “I think anyone who is conscious of what a calorie is does that.” I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve said, “Wow, I overdid it last night. It’s all oatmeal for me today.” Or before a night out, I’ve thought, “I know for a fact that there’s going to be a lot of fun-having this weekend, so I’d better watch what I eat this week.” (Yes, I am an 81-year-old grandmother in my head.) It might not be logical, but I certainly wouldn’t characterize this pattern of behavior as one for which I need counseling or rehab. It’s a natural—albeit, unguided—reaction.

I asked my friend, a Cornell grad, to read the Penn story. I wanted to know if she observed any drunkorexia behavior during her time in Ithaca.

“Of course,” she replied, “but we had another word for it: college.”