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