The Problematic Issue of Disordered Eating Habits within Drinking Culture & How COVID-19 Has Contributed to Food Anxiety

Jasmine Moody

There are different reasons for eating little before drinking: insecurity or for a 'cheap night out'. Both are problematic and can be damaging; COVID-19 certainly hasn't helped anyone either.

Drinks, cocktails

I remember how I thought eating next to nothing before going to my first house party, so I’d look “skinny” was a good idea – It wasn’t. I ended up not only looking like an extreme lightweight but I also blacked out multiple times and vomited on the streets.

Drinking culture is a large part of university life, and with that comes a few issues. This article will be exploring how drinking culture normalises disordered eating habits in such a worryingly casual way and in addition how COVID-19 has amplified disordered eating.

I myself have experienced what happens when you fail to eat properly before a night out – it’s not pleasant. I was and still am a self-conscious person so I was willing to risk it to look a certain way. Since, I have learned from that, and now make sure I don’t repeat the same mistake. The next time I went to a house party, I made sure to eat properly.

Not only can eating disorders and drinking culture mix, disordered eating is even encouraged to quicken the effects of alcohol. I have been in contact with Tessa from York’s BEAT soc to gain further insight into this issue.

“Due to the calorific nature of alcoholic drinks, people suffering with disordered eating often feel that they’re only able to drink if they’ve restricted their food intake during the day” – Tessa, representative for BEAT soc

By not eating, there are numbers, calories, that are allowed to be taken up by alcohol. This may be a win-win for some: not going over their limit and getting drunk faster. However, this approach is extremely dangerous as the body is not receiving proper nutrition from proper food.

” Not only is binge drinking on an empty stomach dangerous, but this behaviour that normalises restricting food intake and skipping meals can be incredibly triggering, and toxic for those who struggle with an eating disorder” – Tessa, representative for BEAT soc

A more common, accepted way disordered eating habits creep into drinking culture, is eating very little, or even nothing before drinking so that you become drunk faster. If your stomach is empty, the alcohol hits quicker as it absorbs at a faster rate into the small intestine, and then into the bloodstream.

There is the possibility of saving students’ money on a night out. Yes, this is viewed as a rather economical approach, but is it a healthy one? No, it is not. Health over wealth. I am not accusing anyone who has done that that they have a disorder, rather I am against how eating less is so normalised within drinking culture:

“The issue is also made worse by the fact that avoiding eating before a night out is often celebrated as an attempt to get drunk faster or more quickly.” -Tessa, representative for BEAT soc

It is understandable why students want to get drunk faster. Being drunk can be fun, but there’s a fine line between the golden zone (or as I like to call it, “happy tipsy”) and flat out inebriated, and unable to function. In my experiences, food can help you stay in that “happy tipsy” stage, and I find this makes my night more enjoyable. Without food, it is very easy, and quick, to jump from “happy tipsy” to not being able to function. Food is important and may help make the night more enjoyable.

Nevertheless, I understand that many students do eat but after a night out and in the form of “scran”: cheesy chips and gravy, kebabs, pizza etc. Students are keen to eat after drinking and I advocate for that! There’s just something very comforting about scran after hours of drinking, dancing, and walking in the cold.

On a similar topic, disordered eating habits and food insecurity has increased during COVID-19, even in individuals without a diagnosis. With the boom of the fitness industry and healthier eating (not a bad thing, of course but can be harmful to some) and more time to think, more and more of us are being affected. People have been scared by the “Quarantine-15” and therefore do things to combat it, sometimes in extreme ways. I would just like to add quickly that there was no need to scaremonger the population with this mantra. (The Freshman 15 was bad enough!) In addition to this, does everybody remember the policy of putting calories on menus? I am aware that some restaurants do this but advocating this for all eateries? I would say this is quite controversial to implement. I am sure this idea would be less scrutinised if there was an option for a customer to see calories on a menu or not. Yes, combatting obesity is part of the plan to combat COVID-19 but more consideration should have been out into place for those who are affected by numbers.

We have more time go online and we have more time to control what we eat or don’t eat. According to The Awareness Centre, self isolation causes an increased amount of anxiety, which can then translate onto food anxiety or an excuse not to eat. With the many hours I spent on TikTok, many people our age reported to only eat one meal and loosing large amounts of weight in addition to feeling an increased sense of insecurity in theirselves. Even though us students are in university now, classes are online. We are basically is a similar situation to how it was in March.

In America, The National Eating Disorders Association has reported an increase in phone calls of 78% during these pasts months. Those with diagnosed disordered eating have been harshly affected

“Approximately 70% of patients reported that eating, shape and weight concerns, drive for physical activity, loneliness, sadness, and inner restlessness increased during the pandemic.”

(Quote from the Eating disorders in times of the COVID‐19 pandemic—Results from an online survey of patients with anorexia nervosa)

Issues like this can have a large impact on mental health. Recently, there has been a focus on student mental health. With the recent suicide of a student at Manchester, due to severe anxiety, people have been advocating for more help with mental health. Many of those with disordered eating have anxiety about how they look and food anxiety and if nothing is done about this, anxiety can lead to a dire end.

So, what can be done? Students will always find ways to save money and therefore may opt for the no-eating-before-a-night-out option. This is still a widely known tip within the student community so it will be hard to cut out this mantra complete. Let’s normalise eating a proper amount of food before a night out as much as we normalise having scran after all the drinking. In terms of disordered eating during quarantine, this is a much harder issue to tackle. I have recently seen posts being shared around about mental health hotlines and that makes me happy. It’s hard to do but keeping a positive mindset will help. Avoid negative posts on social media, block and unfollow accounts which make yourself doubt your amazing self. We will be out of this mess soon and life can slowly creep back into normality.

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