University research reveals some young women report skipping meals, purging or exercising to offset their calorific intake from alcohol.

Research from the University of South Australia (UniSA) has found university students are engaging in patterns of disordered eating, with a number of young women reporting skipping meals, purging or exercising to offset their calorific intake from alcohol.  

The study looked at the drinking patterns of 479 Australian female university students aged between 18 and 24, and found 82.7% had engaged in these patterns of behaviour, with more than 28% reporting they “regularly” skipped meals, consumed low-calorie or sugar-free drinks or purged or exercised to offset their calorific intake from alcohol. UniSA lead researcher and clinical psychologist, Alicia Powell-Jones, said the prevalence of these behaviours is “concerning”.

“Due to their age and stage of development, young adults are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviours, which can include drinking excess alcohol,” she said.

“Excess alcohol consumption, combined with restrictive and disordered eating patterns, is extremely dangerous and can dramatically increase the risk of developing serious physical and psychological consequences, including hypoglycaemia, liver cirrhosis, nutritional deficits, brain and heart damage, memory lapses, blackouts, depression and cognitive deficits.”

The study has labelled the patterns of behaviour “drunkorexia”; however, Australia’s national eating disorder and body image charity, the Butterfly Foundation, says terms like this are not encouraged as they can often trivialise behaviours that are associated with serious mental illness and health issues.

Clinician and team leader of the Butterfly Foundation’s national helpline, Amelia Trinick, said these patterns of behaviour are certainly not foreign to counsellors, and indicate there is a “growing push towards compensatory behaviours”.

“This behaviour is definitely of concern to Butterfly. We know there are risks associated with both alcohol consumption as well as food restriction and those risks can be exacerbated by one another and result in very detrimental behaviours which can lead to both immediate and ongoing health concerns.”

She said while these patterns of behaviour are not necessarily indicative of a particular eating disorder diagnosis, they could be present in any diagnoses present in the latest diagnostic manual.

“Compensatory behaviours and in particular those that seek to reduce calorific intake are factors that can be seen in restrictive, purging, and bingeing presentations of disorders.”  

Social isolation a factor with a lack of regional support

The UniSA study also identified social isolation as a trigger for the patterns of behaviour, something the Butterfly Foundation has pointed to, with a shortage of treatment and support in regional areas and, more recently, COVID-19.  

“We know that isolation can be a huge factor for some people engaging in maladaptive behaviours, and disordered eating behaviours in particular,” Ms Trinick says.

“Not having the same support system, a change in eating and drinking habits, and disruption of regular routines has seen people really struggle with mental health at this time.”

The Foundation has recently launched their MAYDAYs campaign, in a push to improve eating disorder treatment and support for the 280,000 people living with an eating disorder in regional, remote and very remote (RRR) communities.

“Eating disorders do not discriminate by postcode, age, gender, ethnic background, culture, size or shape. Living remotely and having to travel long distances for appropriate eating disorder treatment highlights the gaps in our health system,” said Butterfly Foundation CEO Kevin Barrow.

“People living in RRR communities shouldn’t have to fight to get help for their mental health. This lack of access to available treatment and care in these communities is putting lives at risk.”

Anyone needing support with eating disorders or body image issues is encouraged to contact the Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 334 673. For urgent support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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