Binge Drinking and Binge Eating
Susan Kelly-Weeder had a "eureka" moment a few years ago. The associate professor of community health at the Connell School was helping out at University Health Services on the Monday after spring break. All the students she saw that day complained of an ailment induced (at least in part) by how much alcohol they had consumed over vacation. "One had a broken leg, another had a broken foot, and another had to be worked up for sexually transmitted diseases," she said. "And it was all related to alcohol. I said, 'Wow.'"
Kelly-Weeder, whose career has included stints as an emergency room nurse and years of work as a family nurse practitioner, turned this moment of insight into a groundbreaking research project she hopes will lead to interventions that improve long-term health promotion. Kelly-Weeder will study the increasingly prominent co-occurrence of binge drinking and binge eating.
While the subject has recently garnered attention in popular culture and the mainstream media, this nurse-researcher aims to delve beyond the sensationalist headlines to find evidence-based solutions to an emerging public health problem. "We're tremendously proud of both of her," says Connell School Dean Susan Gennaro. "She is doing work that is cutting edge and is essential for the health of men and women in this country."
Double-duty danger: Binge eating and drinking
A clinical investigator in the field of women's health, Kelly-Weeder is a nurse first. "I always will be," says the affable clinician and professor who recently received tenure. "I love the relationship with patients. I love being able to make people better. I love being able to fix things."
Her current research, in fact, aims to do just that. Armed with a three-year training grant from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Nursing Research, Kelly-Weeder is studying the phenomenon of simultaneous binge eating and binge drinking among college students. Newsweek and a handful of other mainstream media outlets have paid glancing attention to the problem, which they have dubbed "drunkorexia." But she hopes to document the problem and develop interventions that would change behavior and curb long-term eating and drinking disorders.
Kelly-Weeder's encounters with students after spring break a few years ago motivated her to look into alcohol abuse and discuss it with students and colleagues. She soon discovered that some students starve themselves in order to drink to excess without gaining weight and often go on binge eating sprees after partying.
"I had this young student in my office, and she said that the girls here [at Boston College] stop eating on Wednesdays so they can save all their calories for the weekend so they can drink." They stop eating on Wednesdays? "I said, 'How drunk do they get if they haven't had anything to eat?'" she recalls.
Seeing a need for systematic research on concurrent eating and drinking disorders in young women, Kelly-Weeder conducted a preliminary study, and applied for a National Institutes of Health grant to pursue to further studies that, she hopes, will go beyond identifying the problem and lead to interventions. (Initially, she had hoped to study the behavior exclusively among young women. But the problem behavior exists in young men as well, so the current research will include both genders.)
The first phase of her study will be an online survey sent to all Boston College students, which will look at the intersection of drinking and eating patterns, and ask students questions about their drinking and eating behaviors. A subsequent survey will examine possible interventions. Students who report troubling habits will be given statistics on the number of calories consumed, the amount of money spent on alcohol, their blood alcohol content, and other vital information. They will then receive suggestions about how to change their behavior.
Meanwhile, because her grant provides support for training and education, Kelly-Weeder is studying and working closely with mentors Judith Bernstein, professor of community health sciences and an alcohol abuse researcher at Boston University's School of Public Health, and Connell School Associate Dean Barbara E.
Wolfe, an expert in eating disorders.
When she started this line of research, Kelly-Weeder was initially stunned by the students' candor about drinking to excess. She has since learned from a campus alcohol counselor that "the students don't think they drink too much," she says. "They think everyone drinks like that. They think this behavior is normal."
Knowing that just fuels her passion for the research. "Clearly, this is my life's work," she says. "As a nurse practitioner and a nurse scientist, my focus is on wellness and health." ✹