Frequent drinking associated with reduced risk of unhealthy weight gain

Most health professionals agree that if someone is going to consume alcohol, it is better to consume it ‘little and often’, rather than use up one’s quota on ‘binges’ that usually come at the weekend. Compared to binge-drinking, regular imbibing of alcohol is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Some have attempted to explain this with the observation that compared to infrequent drinking, frequent drinking is associated with favourable effects on blood pressure and blood fat levels.

However, there is evidence that regular drinking is also associated with another benefit for health: less risk of putting on weight around the mid-riff. This is important because it is fatty accumulation around the middle (abdominal obesity) that is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and overall risk of death.

In a study published in April this year, scientists assessed the association between frequency of alcohol intake and risk of increase in waist circumference over a 5-year period in about 43,500 Danish men and women. Compared to men drinking less than once a week, those drinking 2-4 x, 5-6 x and 7 x a week were at 12, 18 and 21 per cent reduced risk of waist size increase. Those drinking once a week or not at all were not found to experience any protection in waist size expansion. Similar results were seen in women. The associations held even when amount and type of alcohol where taken into account.

This evidence supports the idea that regular compared to infrequent drinking is associated with protection from waist size increased in men and women ” something that might help to protect against cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and death.

This sort of study cannot be used to conclude that it is regular drinking that is beneficial. After all, it might possibly be that those with a tendency to gain wait around their middles choose to drink more infrequently than those who are less prone to this sort of weight gain.

However, if regular drinking is protective, how might this be? The authors of the study suggest a couple of explanations here that centre on the fact that alcohol consumption stimulates what is known as ‘thermogenesis’. What this means is that alcohol intake stimulates heat production in the body. The more it does this, the less the calories in the alcohol will tend to be stored as fat. The authors suggests that for the same weekly alcohol intake, a frequent drinking pattern results in relatively more energy being converted to heat, compared with a less frequent intake.

Personally, I think the supposed benefits of alcohol drinking have been generally overstated. However, I don’t necessarily recommend that people don’t drink, partly on account of the fact that I believe that there are other reasons for eating and drinking things that go beyond purely health-related issues. However, the evidence does seem to be there to suggest that the best way to consume alcohol is ‘little and often’.

One other recommendation I have for those of us that like to drink is to match each drink of alcohol with one of water. This tends to cause people to drink less alcohol, and it may help to dilute any negative impact alcohol may have (including the risk of hangover). Also, it means individuals will have drunk some water they may not have had otherwise, which might have positive benefits for health.

References:

Tolstrup JS, et al. Alcohol drinking frequency in relation to subsequent changes in
waist circumference. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;87:957″ 63.

6 Responses to Frequent drinking associated with reduced risk of unhealthy weight gain

  1. Dennis Mangan 30 October 2008 at 8:26 pm #

    A confounding issue here is that those with higher socioeconomic status drink more, while they also have better health, so the “effects” of alcohol here could be no more than that people who drink are healthier anyway, or even despite the alcohol.

  2. Sue 31 October 2008 at 6:56 pm #

    I found this interesting, especially the ‘thermogenesis” angle. Does the heat produced actually make one feel hot? (or is it just an internal matter). My husband and I in our 50s are regular, moderate-ish drinkers of wine (and beer, husband). We are very often hot at night. I thought my ‘heat’ was due to post- menopausal stuff and I know that it is recommended to reduce alcohol to reduce symptoms. But this is the first time I have read that alcohol actually has this heat generating effect. Thank you.

  3. Neil Fiertel 1 November 2008 at 5:43 am #

    I have also heard that brain shrinkage is attributed to alcohol drinking at ANY LEVEL and not just to binge drinking. I do not have the reference but it was covered well on the Canadian TV news last week. So I guess one could have a nicely defined waist, low blood sugar and the brain the size of a pea! Takes your choice it seems!

  4. Dr John Briffa 1 November 2008 at 7:33 pm #

    Neil
    Just to be clear, I don’t advocate drinking – I think its supposed ‘benefits’ have been overstated. However, if someone is going to drink, there is some evidence that ‘little and often’ is the healthiest way to go.

  5. Anna 3 November 2008 at 1:30 am #

    Neil,

    Be very, very careful about paying too much attention to studies covered in the mainstream media. Often they are NOT peer-reviewed, and sometimes are simply press releases from “poster sessions” (very preliminary research investigations by less senior scientists) that are picked up by the news wires because they generate headlines (in fact, I generally figure that anything covered in the mainstream media is there simply for headline impact).

    Epidemiological studies are most often reported on in the mainstream media, but they are most useful for formulating hypotheses, not determining causation or policy. Intervention studies can be more useful, but again, one should consider the proponderence of the evidence, not an individual study. Generally, the mainstream media reporters have little or no relevant science or medical background, and the articles are fraught with errors, over simplifications, and misleading and out-of-context quotes.

    Far better to seek out credible and informed interpretations of the important peer-reviewed and published studies, such as provided by Dr. Briffa, Dr. Mike Eades, and others. These folks often explain various details about statistics and study design characteristics, important details that lay people might not know to consider (or disregard). Even then, it makes sense to review a number of knowledgeable interpretations before deciding whether to act on the conclusions drawn from the study or not.

  6. diana 9 November 2008 at 1:36 am #

    ‘ Alcohol suppresses fat oxidation, thereby allowing more dietary fat to be stored ‘ (Gessler, Powers, Human Nutrition, 11th ed., p.396)
    I personally think that there is a psychological side of it. My hypothesis is that slim people tend to socialize more and overweight body- concious people tend to stay at home with a bucket of KFC watching sitcoms…

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