We are coming up to a time of celebration for girls — end of exams, school formal, schoolies week, Christmas and New Year’s — and unfortunately that means we’re also heading into the prime binge-drinking season.
Seven out of 10 teenage girls engage in binge drinking, consuming five or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion. Meanwhile, among 15-year-old girls, almost 7 in 10 are on a diet. And researchers have coined a new term, “drunkorexia”, for a disturbing phenomenon: a growing number of girls and young women, especially university students, who avoid eating all day so that they can “save” those kilojoules for a big night of drinking.
Risky teen behaviour such as binge drinking is nothing new, of course. As adults, most of us can look back and wince at some of the excessive drinking we or our friends did. But the whole “make sure you line your stomach” idea that was prevalent when I was growing up doesn’t make sense to girls now who simultaneously feel the pressure to be thin and to drink (kilojoule-laden) alcohol with their peers.
There is a huge emphasis in our culture on balancing kilojoules in and kilojoules out — and some girls are taking drastic measures to balance those numbers. The consequences of being starved of food and bingeing on alcohol are even more drastic on the body, heart and mind.
I am glad this topic is getting some media play this week, because we all need to be aware of this trend and start a dialogue going with our girls, especially as they get ready for the party and holiday season. I spoke about it this week on Kerri-anne and hope parents found it helpful:
It frightens me that many parents seemingly dismiss their teen daughters’ (and sons’) drinking as just a rite of passage. I have spoken to many mums and dads who are almost hysterical about the possibility their teen daughter might start using drugs or have her drink spiked with drugs, yet are not at all concerned when they hear that she has been drinking alcohol. Often parents are the ones who actually buy the alcohol for their teens. In Australia we do have a tradition of using alcohol in every social situation — to celebrate, to commiserate, to relax with friends and family — but here are some reasons that I believe it’s time we all came up with some new traditions (from my book The Butterfly Effect):
What every girl should know about alcohol
Please take into account that figures are available only for men and women over the legal drinking age, 18. Younger girls, with their still-developing brains and growing bodies, are at even greater risk.
Females are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol than males. This is because males and females are physically different and so our bodies process alcohol differently. When a person drinks, alcohol enters the bloodstream and then, being water soluble, it is distributed throughout the tissues of the body that contain water. Females usually have smaller bodies than males, which means that there is less water volume to take up the alcohol, leading to a higher concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream and a greater effect. This is compounded by the fact that fatty tissues do not take up alcohol and females have a higher proportion of body fat than males. With fewer tissues in the body to take up the alcohol, a female will be more affected than a male who consumed the same amount. Additionally, the body’s ability to break down and rid itself of alcohol is limited by the size of the liver and on average females have smaller livers than males.
The culture of dieting and striving to be thin also increases the impact of alcohol on females. Dieting leads to an excessive loss of body fluid and as it is the body’s water content that takes up alcohol, there will be a higher concentration of alcohol in a dieter’s system. This has serious implications for teenage girls.
Heavy drinking is risky for both males and females, but females are more prone to the acute and chronic effects of alcohol abuse. Because of our physical differences, the risk to our health starts at lower rates of alcohol consumption than it does for males. For women, the risk of premature death increases once we start drinking more than two standard drinks of alcohol a day; at that point, the risk of death climbs to 40 per cent higher than it is for non-drinkers. For men, on the other hand, the risk begins to increase at four drinks a day.
The greater the amount of alcohol a person drinks above the guidelines, the higher their risk of premature death. Hence bingeing – consuming an excessive quantity of alcohol at once, a form of drinking adopted by most teen drinkers – is especially dangerous.
Because our livers are smaller than men’s, women are vulnerable to liver damage and cirrhosis at lower levels of alcohol consumption. Alcohol increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer and the risk rises with the level of alcohol consumed. A woman who drinks three or four standard drinks a day has a 35 per cent higher risk of breast cancer than one who drinks little or none. If a woman drinks more than four standard drinks a day, her risk is 67 per cent greater. Alcohol-related deaths in women usually take the form of strokes, injuries from falls, alcoholic liver cirrhosis, road accidents and breast cancer. Alcohol poses a further physical threat to women and girls in that it may increase the risk of being harmed by violence. Lastly, there is not only the risk of intoxication leading to unsafe sex or an unplanned pregnancy, but also the risks to the health of an unborn child.