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Consuming alcohol and severely restricting food calories dims brain function in similar ways, according to Dr. David Hamilton, associate medical director of Yellowbrick, an addiction treatment facility in Evanston. 

College women swapping food for alcohol

by Christine Skopec
Jun 3, 2014


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Information from: and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism


Christine Skopec/MEDILL

Data source: National Eating Disorders Association, Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders and National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism


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Linden Oaks at Edward Hospital in Naperville hosted the 11th annual National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders Candlelight Vigil May 19. It mourned those who lost their battle with an eating disorder, but also offered hope to those who are recovering.


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Johanna Kandel, founder and CEO The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, delivered the keynote address at a vigil for eating disorders, reminding those with food struggles to remember to put themselves first by using the analogy of an airplane oxygen mask. "You may not have the actual one, but never leave home without it," she said.

Signs of eating disorders

While most people acknowledge the dangers of anorexia and bulimia, there are many more individuals who have unhealthy approaches to eating. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders gives specific criteria for diagnosing an eating disorder. Signs include refusal to maintain minimal body weight for size, height gender; distorted view of actual body weight and appearance; too much influence of weight on self-esteem or denial of dangerously low weight; and an intense fear of becoming overweight. Many people do not exhibit all of these symptoms, though.
A new breed of eating disorder that couples starvation diets with excessive alcohol consumption is sweeping through college campuses, affecting scores of young women, experts say. To avoid gaining weight, the coeds devote their calories to the booze.

This condition is blurring the line between eating disorder and substance abuse, making it particularly dangerous, and many young women find themselves developing these habits once they head off to college.

Jamie Selfrige, an occupation therapy student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found herself and her friends falling into a pattern of skipping meals followed by heavy drinking while she was an undergraduate student.

“We wouldn’t eat dinner,” Selfrige said, now a graduate student for whom the problem faded away by senior year. “We would save up all of our calories for drinking.”

Part of the problem is how heavily girls influence their other friends. What starts out as a problem for just a couple of girls can quickly spread to an entire peer group.

“If they’re gonna skip a meal, then I’m gonna skip a meal because I don’t want to be the fatty," Selfrige said.

Niquie Dworkin, coordinator of clinical training at Lakeview Center for Psychotherapy, has worked for more than 20 years with people who suffer from eating disorders as well as those who struggle with substance abuse.

“I think most people probably fall into a category of disordered eating,” Dworkin said. “They might not have an eating disorder proper, but they might exhibit some of the symptoms.”

These negative feelings towards foods and the knowledge that alcohol contains a lot of calories makes the problem even worse for women trying to limit their calorie intake.

Allison Chaplin, a nursing student at DePaul University, began to notice one of her friends developing this habit while in college and it seems to be getting worse.

“She literally will not eat during the day and then she’ll drink,” Chaplin said.

The pressure to be skinny is evident in every magazine, movie and television show and girls are well aware of that pressure early on.

“Thin is what’s beautiful,” Selfrige said.

As girls get older and head off to school, the need to stay thin is complicated by the pressure to fit in as a college student by partying and drinking.

“It’s just part of the college lifestyle,” Selfrige said.

Chaplin chocks it up to “a fear of missing out.”

While most young people see college as a gateway to independence, it also creates an environment that contributes to eating disorders and substance abuse since starting college is such a huge lifestyle change.

College is “the first time that most of these people have been away from their parents, so whatever sort of ways their parents were helping them stay on track or be moderate, they don’t have that anymore,” Dworkin said.

Additionally, their age puts them at a particularly high risk to develop problems with alcohol and eating, though eating disorders can occur with or without substance abuse.

“Young people, when they’re 18, 19, 20, you know, their brains are still developing,” Dworkin explained. “They don’t have as much capacity to weigh it and think things through, so they’re more vulnerable.”

There may be another, newer explanation, though, and it comes from something most young people use every day. Pamela Keel, professor of psychology at Florida State University, conducted a study that identified a link between Facebook use and the risk of developing an eating disorder.

Keel has spent her career teaching and researching factors that contribute to eating disorders and negative body image. Two of her students approached her about doing a study when they realized that the popular social media sight might be influencing young women’s attitudes about their bodies.

“More time on Facebook is associated with disordered eating,” Keel said. Facebook reinforced a poor self-image as young women looked at and compared themselves to the glamorous shots of others.

The study had two parts. The first part was a survey where women reported the how frequently they used Facebook and their attitudes towards eating, looking for some sort of link. The second part questioned whether Facebook use caused these attitudes or just correlated with them. Keel set up an experiment where women were called in to spend either 20 minutes on Facebook or 20 minutes reading a Wikipedia article. The women who spent time of Facebook found it contributed to increased anxiety over weight and body image compared to those who read the Wikipedia article.

Keel explained that Facebook is unique compared to other websites because it brings together peer pressure and media in the same place.

Facebook “basically combines these two known risk factors,” Keel said. The study was published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. 

Restricting calories wreaks havoc on the body, but just how harmful is it and what is affected?

Severely restricted diets and alcohol abuse impair the brain in similar ways, according to Dr. David Hamilton, a psychiatrist specializing in neuroscience and the associate medical director of Yellowbrick, an addiction treatment facility in Evanston. His training in neurology give him an understanding of how different substances impact brain function.

He explains that starvation impairs certain parts of the brain.

“The brain has developed mechanisms for dealing with that and it starts selectively shutting down parts that aren’t as necessary as other parts,” Hamilton said. “And those parts are things like reason, decision-making, consciousness.”

The way alcohol interacts with the brain is strikingly similar, gradually impairing function. Combining food restriction with drinking is even worse because it magnifies the effects on the brain, which can be dangerous and even deadly for young women.

“They’re more vulnerable to traumatic assault, accidents, drinking more than they intended to, using other substances they might not have decided to if this issue, this decision making part of the brain, was working more properly,” Hamilton said.

Unfortunately, what starts out as a minor problem for some women turns into a huge one later down the road. This is what Chaplin sees happening to her friend.

“It’s kind of taking over her life now,” she said.

While some young women spiral out of control, others find they are able to correct the problem as they grow older and leave the college lifestyle behind.

“It slowly started to taper off senior year,” Selfrige says.

Selfrige has not had any problems since she graduated from college, suggesting that the condition may be a phase that other college women will be able to outgrow.