Skipping meals to drink more alcohol? Why that’s a dangerous choice

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For 32-year-old Meghan Dooks, a night spent with girlfriends often means enjoying wine. To accommodate for the calories in the drink, Calgary-based Dooks cuts down on what she eats during the day.

“I also have educated myself on types of wines that are fewer calories per a given volume, and make decisions based on that and how much I’ve consumed in the day or days prior,” she said.

“Of course once I get some [alcohol] in me, I often start to care less about how many calories I have left for the day and care more about the sweet, sweet Prosecco on my palate, so decisions may change based on the night.”

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Dooks is not the only one who deliberately lowers her caloric intake on days that she’s drinking. According to a U.K. report, 40 per cent of those aged 25-34 admitted they’d skipped a meal to save calories for alcohol.

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Another recent Italian study found that 34 per cent of young adults between 18-26 limit their calorie intake before drinking — a behaviour commonly called “drunkorexia.”

But health experts warn that eating less so you can drink more is not a good idea, and can potentially be dangerous.

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“If someone is just having a glass of wine at dinner, they really don’t need to be compensating for that,” said Grace Wong, a Calgary-based registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders.

“But if someone is so fearful of having an extra glass of wine on a moderate basis to the point that they [start] to cut back on their calories … it can become a form of disordered eating.”
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Why people skip food for booze

Alcoholic beverages, depending on what you drink, can be high in sugar and calories. In college and university populations, where binge drinking is more prevalent, behaviours such as excessive exercise and skipping meals are often intended to prevent weight gain.

It’s also easier to get drunk faster on an empty stomach.

“When I was young, I consumed fewer calories to adjust for alcohol for economic reasons [meaning I] could get drunk for cheaper,” Dooks said. “Now, and for the last several years, any time I’ve done this it was to manage body weight.”

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Canadian health guidelines recommend no more than two alcoholic drinks a day, with a maximum of 10 per week for women and 15 per week for men. Wong said that if you drink in moderation and eat well, a glass of wine won’t have a serious impact on your weight.

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“We are not meant to eat the same amount of calories every day — which seems counter to [society’s] diet culture,” Wong said. “It’s OK to drink on top of your regular [food] intake … if you’re having a moderate amount of alcohol.”

According to Wong, if you’re regularly binge drinking, however, it’s important to take a deeper look at your behaviour to understand any possible underlying issues. There could potentially be mental health or addiction issues, for example, she said.

What happens when we eat less and drink more?

“Alcohol consumed on an empty stomach can lead to rapid intoxication and impair both our cognitive and physical abilities,” said Susan Macfarlane, an Ottawa-based registered dietitian and nutritionist.

“And over time, reducing food intake in favour of alcohol can lead to malnutrition and an increased risk of disease, such as cancer, diabetes and liver problems.”

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While drunkorexia isn’t an official medical diagnosis, Macfarlane said that intentionally restricting yourself from food can lead to issues around eating.

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“This behaviour … [can] absolutely be a form of disordered eating if it leads to a compromised nutrition and health status and interferes with normal day-to-day functioning,” she said.

Wong echoes this and said that if you reduce food or exercise to “purge” the calories from alcohol, it can become a dangerous cycle and potentially lead to an eating disorder.

Dooks said she’s aware of potential health consequences to eating less when she drinks.

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“I know alcohol is toxic and I can imagine it has a harsher effect on your system when you’ve eaten less food, or perhaps less starchy food, if you plan on having a lot of it,” she said.

You don’t need to eat less to enjoy a drink

Instead of reducing your food intake, you can enjoy beverages that are lower in calories, said Andrea Miller, a Whitby, Ont.-based registered dietitian. Drinks like White Russians and eggnog are often higher in calories, but a vodka soda or spritzer is lighter and less sweet.

Miller also said to be mindful of how much you consume as binge drinking can be detrimental to your overall well-being.

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“What I often tell people is alternate an alcoholic beverage with a non-alcoholic beverage,” she said. “So have your glass of wine and then a carbonated water with lemon or lime.”

If maintaining specific health goals is a priority to you, Macfarlane said it’s “permissible to be aware of your energy intake on a day where you know you will be consuming alcoholic beverages” and eat whole, nutritious foods.

“Maybe you opt for a breakfast of oatmeal rather than pancakes and whip cream, or say ‘no thanks’ to an offer of dessert at lunch,” she explained. “What you don’t want to do in this situation is under eat since studies show that restrained eaters are more likely to binge drink and eat more as a result of the alcoholic beverages they consume.”

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Bottom line

While it’s important to drink in moderation, it’s not recommended to skip meals just so you can enjoy a drink. Miller said it’s important to maintain a healthy relationship with eating, and find pleasure in enjoying meals.

“Restriction backfires,” Miller said. “When people feel restricted … they end up making up for it.”

“Restriction can also make us feel sad, and it changes our relationship with food. Food is meant to be enjoyed and celebrated.”

If you’re concerned about disordered eating, the National Eating Disorder Information Centre offers a free helpline: 1-866-633-4220.

They also have information on their website.