Body image problems in teen girls tied to alcohol use

PHOTO: The Straits Times

High school girls who have issues with body image and weight are more likely to be drinkers than ) their peers, a recent US study suggests.

Researchers focused on body image behavioural misperceptions (BIBM) - when girls try to gain or lose weight to change how they look even though there's no medical need for them to alter their weight.

In the study of more than 6,500 teen girls, 38 per cent had these misperceptions and roughly two-thirds had tried alcohol at least once.

When teen girls had body image issues that drove them to try to change their weight, they were 29 per cent more likely to have tried alcohol and 22 per cent more likely to be heavy drinkers than young women without these body image problems, the study found.

"We know that using alcohol as an adolescent is associated with an increased risk for experiencing multiple problems, including school problems, social problems, legal problems, hangovers, illness, risky sexual behaviour, disrupted growth and development, physical and sexual assault, alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, unintentional injury, memory problems, drug misuse, and death," said lead study author Anna Schlissel of the University of Chicago.

"We also know that heavy episodic drinking is associated with even higher risks of health and social problems, and that the younger people start drinking alcohol, the greater their risk for developing substance use disorders later in life," Schlissel added by email.

What you should know about alcohol and hangovers

  • The darker the shade of your choice of poison, the more likely it is going to cause a hangover the morning after.
  • This is because alcohol which are darker in colour denotes a higher level of congeners - products of alcohol fermentation.
  • Studies have shown that bourbon, for instance, has 37 times more congeners than vodka, a clear liquor.
  • Doctors suggest opting for light-coloured drinks - white wine over red wine,
  • or gin over whiskey.
  • This is because the liver is only able to break down half an ounce of alcohol (about one drink) per hour.
  • Any excess alcohol is circulated within the body until the liver has the ability to process it.
  • According to the Health Promotion Board, a standard alcoholic drink is a 330ml can of regular beer, a 175ml glass of wine or a 35ml nip of spirit.
  • This is when you start feeling the symptoms - the usual combination of a splitting headache, nausea, food aversion and that general feeling of wretchedness.
  • A hangover peaks only after the alcohol is totally eliminated from the blood.
  • Alcohol interferes with the secretion of the hormone that inhibits urination, which explains long queues at the loos in clubs.
  • Loading up on water in between drinks helps to dilute the alcohol in your blood.
  • Munching on bar snacks like peanuts or cheese in between drinks also help to line the stomach and reduce the absorption of alcohol.

Drinking can also make body image problems or eating disorders worse, Schlissel said.

To explore the connection between alcohol and body image behavioural misperceptions, researchers examined survey responses collected in 2013 from female high school students, most of whom were 14 to 18 years old.

Overall, 18 per cent reported episodes of heavy drinking during the previous month, when they consumed at least five drinks in rapid succession, researchers report in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, online December 12.

Older students were more likely to report alcohol use than teens still in ninth grade, and Hispanic girls were more likely to drink than white girls.

Teens who reported smoking in the past month were also more likely to drink, as were girls who became sexually active before age 13.

Students in twelfth grade and teens with a history of depression or smoking were more likely than younger girls or non-smokers to report heavy drinking.

Among the teens with body image issues, black girls were less likely to have heavy drinking problems than teens in other racial and ethnic groups.

One limitation of the study is that the survey depends on teens to accurately recall their drinking habits and body image issues, the authors note. It's also impossible to tell which started first: the drinking or the body image issues.

The study also doesn't prove that either problem is a cause or effect of the other.

Another shortcoming of the study is that it didn't distinguish between girls trying to lose or gain weight, noted Ken Winters, a psychology researcher at the University of Minnesota who wasn't involved in the study. Girls are unlikely to drink to lose weight, he added by email.

Still, the findings add to evidence linking body image issues with risky behaviours, said Dr. Benjamin Shain, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago.

For prevention, it helps for parents to drink responsibly around kids and to teach children about the dangers of drinking before they reach adolescence, Shain, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.

Parents should also avoid making negative comments about how their daughters look, Shain added. Teens with eating disorders often cite parents' negative comments as a cause, he said.

Vigilance matters, because eating disorders and alcohol abuse can have lasting consequences.

"These include depression, suicide, osteoporosis, infections, joint problems, diabetes, dementia, and cardiovascular disease, to name a few," Shain said. "Behaviors started as an adolescent tend to continue into adulthood."