Women who are occasional drinkers gain less weight than nondrinkers

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 16th March 2010

A new study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts reveals that women who drink occasionally are less likely to gain weight than either nondrinkers or heavy drinkers.

The survey, which followed 19,220 women over 38, asked participants about weight and alcohol consumption over 13 years.  Of the women, all healthy and of normal weight, 41% became overweight and 4% obese over the survey period.

Red wine and bottleWomen who consumed between 1.5 and 3 drinks daily had a 27% lower risk of becoming overweight, and a 61% lower risk of obesity, than their nondrinking counterparts, even after controlling for other factors (including smoking, physical activity and fruit and vegetable consumption).

George Washington University Weight Management Program co-director Scott Kahan advised that these findings should not be taken as advice to change drinking habits. “It won’t change recommendations for my patients, I can say that for certain.” he said, “If you don’t drink, there’s no reason to start.”

Alcohol consumption is associated with various health and psychosocial problems, including alcoholism and a small increase in the risk of breast cancer.

However, the study may be the first step in solving the so-called French Paradox – why the frequently-drinking French population isn’t as overweight as other Western societies.

According to the study, women who drank generally also cut down their calorie intake from food, especially carbohydrates.  However, total calories did increase with alcohol consumption; women who drank at least 2.5 drinks a day averaged about 1800 calories a day, compared to 1670 for nondrinkers.  Despite this, the drinkers gained less weight.

R. Curtis Ellison, M.D., the director of the Institute on Lifestyle and Health at the Boston University School of Medicine, says this study is the strongest evidence to date that calories from food and alcohol are not created equal.

“Many other studies that are not nearly as well done or as large as this suggest that calories from alcohol are metabolized differently,” Ellison says. “The alcohol calories probably don’t count as much as calories from a Hershey’s bar.”

The study paves the way for further research into alcohol and weight gain.  More questions are raised – how drinking patterns affect the phenomenon, whether age is relevant, or whether alcohol consumption influences weight gain in those who are already overweight or obese.

Although recovering alcoholics and people with uncontrolled epilepsy shouldn’t drink, Ellison says, moderate alcohol consumption, particularly wine, can have health benefits for people middle-aged and older, especially when it comes to heart health and stroke risk. “I am someone who’s a strong believer that substances in wine are helpful,” he says.