Movies and television often show American college students at wild parties, chugging alcohol and letting the lid off their inhibitions.
Now, a new study suggests that the picture might be more unhealthy than previously thought: Some college students are skipping meals so they can get drunk faster on an empty stomach.
Researchers call this kind of behavior, “drunkorexia.” (Anorexia is a condition where a person starves themselves.)
The study involved nearly 1,200 college students between 18 and 26 years old. While most were from the University of Houston in Texas, students from other parts of the country also participated.
Researchers found that 80 percent said they practiced drunkorexia recently. They exercised heavily, ate low calorie meals, or missed meals for a day before drinking.
The students were trying to avoid weight gain, said Dipali Rinker, who organized the study and presented its findings to the Research Society on Alcoholism in June. They were also trying to get drunker faster and more intensely.
What’s the problem?
Rinker says these eating habits are unhealthy. Also, heavy drinking is linked to drunken driving, unprotected sex, sexual assault and alcohol poisoning.
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse found that about 1,825 college students between 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related injuries every year.
Nicole Mattern, who attends the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., says drinking is common among students.
“Young people have normalized the drinking culture,” she said. “Some people have been drinking since they were 16, and they’re not just going to stop because they’re in a different environment.”
You have to be 21 to drink and buy alcohol legally in the U.S. But Mattern says many students younger than 21 use false documents to enter drinking establishments and buy alcohol.
Rinker at the University of Houston says students believe everyone around them is drinking. They believe they are expected to drink and get drunk.
“There’s this sense of invincibility and the sense this is time in life in which it’s sort of OK … to push those boundaries a little bit. So when you combine the … perception of ‘This is OK. This is what you do in college. This is what other college students are doing’ … with this developmental time period … all of that creates a context for engaging in heavy and risky drinking behaviors.”
Unrestricted freedom is another factor. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says this mainly affects students in their first year of college.
First-year students often drink more intensely than others, Koob adds. However, both he and Rinker agree that students in sports programs, college fraternities and sororities drink more than other students.
“This may be different in other countries, but in the United States for sure, this is the first time they’ve left home, in many cases. It’s the first time they have an unstructured environment. It’s the first time they’re independent. And all these things lead to them needing to make choices.”
Koob says that while the percent of students using alcohol has not increased in recent years, the number of students “blacking out” has increased.
Blacking out is when a person drinks so much alcohol they have no memory of their actions while drunk. For a woman, it amounts to four alcoholic drinks in two hours. For a man, it means five drinks over the same period.
Almost 38 percent of students polled between 18 and 22 years old “binge drank” in 2014, the institute reported.
Koob notes that the part of the brain where decisions are made is not fully developed until age 25. College students in Canada and Europe also face issues with alcohol.
Koob and Rinker said colleges can attempt to ban alcohol use completely. But this hasn’t shown to be the most effective solution. Instead, they say schools must educate students about safe drinking.
For example, students should know that many of their peers do not drink as much as they say they do.
This story was originally featured on VOA News.
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