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Drunkorexia


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from the Citizen:

Do you save up your Weight Watchers points, living all day on chewing gum, cucumber and Ryvita crisps, so you can blow them all on a bottle of wine at night?

Are you the sort who knows that after two glasses of wine, you won't feel like eating dinner, so why bother cooking it?

Do you avoid drinking because it makes you eat "bad" foods, then find yourself getting drunk and eating every complex carb in Christendom?

If any of these apply to you, then you might want to address the fact that you have a zeitgeisty confluence of drinking too much and disordered eating. In short, you might well be a drunkorexic.

Drunkorexia is a silly word that started out as a spiteful joke. It first gained popularity two years ago, when some bitchy website used it to describe the antics of the celebutante skinnies who appeared to live on alcohol and hot air -- cruel close-up photographs highlighting cigarettes were posted alongside the word "drunkorexic." Yet a couple of years on, it has captured the public's imagination.

"It's socially acceptable to be drunk, but it's not OK to be fat," says Ian Marber, a nutritionist who sees signs of a drunkorexic lifestyle among his upscale female clients. "If your natural bent is to be a fatty, but you want to be skinny, whatever you do to stay thin is good by you, even if it's nutritional insanity."

Among his clients, the most common type of drunkorexic is a woman who punctuates her day, apparently sensibly, with an appetite-suppressing and relaxing glass of wine or champagne. "They say, 'Oh, I only ever have one glass of champagne at lunch, and one with my husband when he gets in, and one at dinner, and one when I'm putting the kids to bed.'

If they do eat, it's low-calorie, low-fat, nutritionally empty foods."

Surprisingly, there has been little research into the link between alcohol and food suppression -- a link nutritionists, addiction professionals and psychotherapists all recognize. One of the most comprehensive studies, Food for Thought -- Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders (Columbia University, 2001), highlighted the degree to which people "cross-addict" from one area into another.

The research suggested that people with eating disorders are five times more likely to be substance abusers, while substance abusers are 11 times more likely to have eating disorders. It also noted that eating disorders and substance abuse have several significant characteristics in common: brain chemistry, family history, stress triggers and the prevalence of affected people also suffering from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety or a history of abuse. It also highlighted the social pressures on women in terms of the acceptability of binge drinking and the desirability of skinniness.

"It's a lot of work, starving yourself," says Rhena Branch, a cognitive behavioural therapist who specializes in eating disorders. "It goes against biology. Alcohol helps to relax what is likely to be an anxious, perfectionist individual. Hard-core anorexics will rarely drink at all because of the calories. I think the problem is more widespread at a subclinical level --such as the young woman at university who drinks neat vodka because it has fewer calories, on top of not eating much.

"The quantities drunk may be quite low, but, in the context of being underweight and underfed, are extremely harmful. Even a so-called normal woman, the one saving up calories or points so she can drink, is still a messy binge scenario."

Culturally, there is greater acceptance of a drunk, thin person than there is of a sober, fat one. One of the main characters in The Stepmother, the latest novel from Gay Longworth (writing as Carrie Adams), is a classic drunkorexic. When I asked Longworth why she developed the character (a single mother of three), she said: "Because I see it: exhausted mothers, desperate to get their figure back, use alcohol as a coping mechanism and appetite suppressant. I know one who has a shot of vodka at breakfast to quell hunger pangs first thing in the morning. She does it to survive; it gives her energy without having to eat a bun."

Marber sees this frequently, too. "Posh mummies, expected to look fabulous, having regular hits of wine to take the edge off their appetites. Because they look good and spend a lot of time at the hairdresser's, they get away with it, but, really, they are no different from the working-class mum getting by on cheap cider."

However stupid the word, drunkorexia sums up the various ways in which eating disorders and alcohol abuse are often bedfellows. An acquaintance tells me of a cousin who got down to 56 pounds after existing on "coffee granules and dry white wine. Her entire calorific intake was alcohol."

The cousin was treated for anorexia, apparently successfully, as she now weighs 112 pounds, but the drinking continues. "She's still on a bottle of wine a day, as well as 90 minutes at the gym. But she looks good, so everyone thinks she is better."

At Life Works, a British rehab centre, founder Don Serratt says: "It's common for female alcohol abusers to have an underlying eating disorder -- often bulimia. I'd say about a third of people who come in for an eating disorder will be abusing alcohol, too, with figures the same for those coming in with alcohol problems. This is why we always treat the underlying addictive process, rather than just the one apparent problem."

"It's all about addiction," says Sam, 40, a financial broker who recognizes her own disordered behaviour around food and alcohol. "It's all the same s--t," she laughs drily. "It's just that an eating disorder is a whole lot more fun when you're drinking."

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