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Women, weight and alcohol: Moderate drinking may help keep midlife pounds away

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Here’s a surprise: Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that women who have a drink or two a day are 30% less likely to be overweight or obese than those who don’t.

The study, published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine, looks at data gathered over 13 years from 19,220 women who are participating in the long-running Women’s Health Study. The positive effects held true for wine, beer and hard alcohol, but the strongest association was found with red wine.

Anyone who has ever been on a weight-loss plan was certainly not expecting this news. Usually any alcohol, with its high sugar content and low nutritional value, is discouraged on a diet. Those 125 calories for a glass of wine or 120-150 for a 12-ounce beer are often called “empty calories” – or worse, if they entice the person to eat more snacks.

The research should not translate into advice for women, Dr. James C. Garbutt, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina's Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, told the Los Angeles Times.

"If the message is that by drinking some alcohol you're going to lose weight, that's a potentially complicated and dangerous message," he said.

But there’s no denying the effect. From CNN Health:

“The risk of becoming overweight or obese falls as alcohol consumption rises, even
when factors such as smoking, fruit and vegetable consumption, and physical activity are taken into account, the study found.

“Women who consumed between 1.5 and 3 drinks daily had a 27 percent and 61 percent lower risk of becoming overweight or obese, respectively, than women who didn't drink at all, according to the study.”

And the reason?

"Women who drink moderate amounts of alcohol tend to eat less food, particularly carbohydrates," cardiologist Lu Wang, lead researcher on the study told USA Today.

But she echoes the word of caution: "Women still need to eat healthy and exercise regularly for optimal health, she says." Excessive alcohol consumption can be associated with serious medical and psychosocial problems.

More from CNN Health:

In addition to potentially causing problems at work and with relationships, daily alcohol consumption has a number of health risks, including a small increase in the risk of breast cancer.

Experts recommend that women drink no more than one alcoholic beverage a day, and that men limit themselves to two.

And if you don't drink, experts say, these findings shouldn't inspire you to start hitting the bottle.

"It won't change recommendations for my patients, I can say that for certain," says Scott Kahan, M.D., the co-director of the George Washington University Weight Management Program, in Washington, D.C. "If you don't drink, there's no reason to start."

But, he adds, "I think [the study] suggests that there's no need to quit or avoid alcohol if it's something you enjoy."

And Kahan says that the findings challenge the conventional wisdom about calories from alcohol. "The way that the body handles those calories very possibly might be very different from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins," he says. "It makes you wonder if we've been thinking about alcohol as a nutrient a little bit incorrectly."

The Los Angeles Times story:

The USA Today story:

The CNN Health story:

Add a Comment5 Comments

EmpowHER Guest


As the saying goes: A little of what you love does you good.
Stressing the word 'little' of course!

(Link removed by EmpowHER Moderator)

May 7, 2010 - 11:14pm

As a long time drinker of 2 small glasses of red wine every day (one with my evening meal and one throughout the evening), who at 53 has a BMI of 20 without much exercise or any dieting, right now I am punching the air and saying "Yes!" in a very smug way. But, you know, we hear a lot about the benefits of a Mediterranean diet and although its usually argued that its because of the heavy emphasis of fresh fruit and veg and olive oil, it is true that most people in the Mediterranean countries drink wine, usually red, every day. It is also true that even with all that pasta, obesity is not a huge problem in that part of the world. Maybe that's why red wine is thought to be healthy for the heart - which of course is ONLY why I drink it......;)

March 10, 2010 - 1:07pm


Thanks so much for your input!

You are right. We don't know the details. I know that the reports say that they "adjusted for lifestyle factors," but we don't have details on what exactly those lifestyle factors were.

It does help, I think, that it is a huge study that has been done carefully over many years. Scientists continue to mine this group of women over time for statistics that may or may not prove certain correlations. Whenever they come upon something different or interesting, it raises the question why.

Great input, and a good reminder that it's always smart to question a study. On the green tea thing, I have to admit that when I saw Mentos with green tea in them recently, I was pretty sure that the trend had gone too far!

March 10, 2010 - 9:12am

I'm always curious and a bit skeptical about these things...just as I am curious about the studies that say that drinkers of green tea have all sorts of health benefits.

How much of what is being observed can be attributed to the alcohol, and how much is a function of other lifestyle or diet factors which are simply correlated with alcohol use?

I have a few ideas which could potentially confound these studies. Most people tend to drink alcohol socially, and being social is known to have positive effects on the body--including reducing stress. Also, it seems likely that if people are drinking alcohol socially, they are probably getting out more and they are probably more likely to be more active. The opposite may also be true--people who don't consume any alcohol may be more likely to be worriers, people who have trouble relaxing--it's not that not drinking alcohol causes you to be less relaxed but more that the types of people who refrain on their own from alcohol use might be inherently less relaxed people. Just a thought.

Anyway, if even some of these things are true, it could really throw a wrench in the conclusions of these studies. You might see the correlation out there in the data, but it doesn't mean that if you go out and start drinking a glass of wine every night that you will benefit from weight loss (or any other of the health benefits that have supposedly been established from these correlational studies).

I like the overall conclusion or message of your article though. Moderate alcohol use is not worth worrying about! There may not be strong evidence that it has health benefits, but I think this research shows that there is also no strong evidence that moderate use causes much weight gain either!

March 9, 2010 - 12:37pm

Well, now I am very disappointed. Had I known this sooner I'd have my stash of wine always full and ready to go! I guess I am still considered young enough to pick up on the habit but to think that I have missed valuable years of drinking thinking that I was preserving my figure that way is certainly a bummer.

It is interesting that the article mentions that women who drink 1-2 glasses or drinks a night tend to consume less carbs. Before getting pregnant (of course) I occasionally drank a glass of wine while cooking and then found that I wasn't very hungry afterwards. I never saw it as a positive thing, as a matter of fact I always thought I was giving up perfectly good nutrients in order to have a drink-- looks like I could've afforded to give up my food.

Thanks Diane for your interesting article, I'm sure this will shed a new light on the relationship between drinking and your weight.

March 9, 2010 - 6:41am
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