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Alcohol and Weight Gain: Have We Had it Wrong All Along?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Did you down a couple of green-tinted beers this past Wednesday? What better time than post-St. Patty's Day to talk about how alcohol affects your weight. One new study questions if what we thought we knew about alcohol and weight management holds true. No, I'm not trying to send you into a shame spiral for indulging on Wednesday's famous drinking holiday, so don't worry. But since you may still have alcohol calories on your mind, well here it goes.

When it comes to weight management, one of the easiest things many people can do to cut back on calories is to drink less alcohol—or give it up altogether. After all, alcohol contributes non-nutritious ("empty") calories to your diet, can make you more likely to overeat when you're under its influence, and often results in more calories being stored as fat. Plus when you're on a calorie-controlled diet, you need to make the most of the calories you consume, choosing super nutritious foods to give you the most bang for your calorie budget. Makes sense, right?

If that's true, you may say, then people who drink the most are probably more likely to be overweight and people who drink the least (or not at all) would be more likely to maintain a trim, healthy weight. That is logical, but a recent study published in the March 8 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine found that nondrinkers were actually more likely to gain weight than people who consumed "moderate" amounts of alcohol. (Yes, that is counterintuitive.) So is there more to this story or should you go back out to the bar and chug another beer in an effort to keep your weight down?

For more than a decade, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston tracked the drinking habits of more than 19,000 women (ages 39 and up) who had "normal weight" BMIs at the start of the study. According to Tara Parker-Pope who reported on this study for The New York Times, 60% of these women were self-reported "light" or "regular" drinkers of alcohol and 40% reported drinking no alcohol at the start of the study. Over the course of the 13-year study, 41% of the previously "normal" weight women became overweight or obese, and interestingly, the non-drinkers actually gained the most weight—about nine pounds each. Self-reported "moderate" drinkers gained less: three pounds on average. Researchers calculated that the risk of becoming overweight was about 30% lower for moderate drinkers (1-2 alcoholic drinks daily) than for non-drinkers.

My mind hurts a little trying to make sense of that. So I used my best critical thinking skills and talked with SparkPeople's head dietitian, Becky Hand, a licensed and registered dietitian, to come up with a few important takeaways from this study. Here's what you need to know before you pick up a new drinking habit in an effort to control your weight.

"I consider this to be preliminary research," says Becky Hand, MS Ed, LD, RD. "Additional research is needed before anyone should take recommendations from this." As Parker-Pope points out in her blog, a lot of research on alcohol is conflicting, and the findings regarding this group of women differs from similar studies done with men. "You can't apply what happens during a single study to everyone," Becky cautions. "Notice that in this study, all alcohol intake, food intake, and weight information was self-reported by the study participants. It's well known that study subjects tend to underreport what they really eat, over-report their adherence to healthy habits, and fudge their weights, sometimes deliberately and sometimes without realizing they are doing it at all." That's why any study that uses self-reporting to gather data should always be taken with a grain of salt; unlike a laboratory setting, these variables are not truly controlled or 100% accurate.

She also encourages adults to keep the American Heart Association's guidelines for alcohol consumption in mind: no more than one or two daily drinks for men, no more than one drink daily for women. (One drink is equal to a 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits, or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits.) If you're cutting calories to lose weight, you might not be able to fit alcohol into your program (at least on a regular basis) and still meet your body's macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, fat) and micronutrient (vitamins, minerals) needs.

"For people who are following reduced-calorie diets," Becky explains, "alcohol can take the place of otherwise nutritious and low-calorie foods that are beneficial to the body." This is precisely what happened with the women in this study.

"Women who drank alcohol reported fewer calories from food sources, particularly carbohydrates," wrote the Parker-Pope. Could that mean that there isn't anything innately special about imbibing that speeds up metabolism or triggers a unique fat-fighting physiology? Probably. It's more likely that those women who reported drinking alcohol without gaining weight ate less food calories in order to drink more alcohol calories. It's not a bad idea to skim a few hundred calories out of your diet in order to fit in a special drink.

"That's fine to do occasionally, like on St. Patrick's Day or other celebrations" says Becky, "but not something women should make a habit of. Proper nutrition from food should always be your first priority, especially if you're following a reduced-calorie diet."

That's partly because alcohol is an "antinutrient," which means that it does not provide any beneficial nutrients to the body (besides calories), and may actually interfere with vitamin and mineral absorption. The health risks and potential side effects of alcohol are well known. We may not think of it as such, but it is classified as a drug and has been proven to deplete vitamins (including folic acid and vitamins B-12, C, D, and E), minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and selenium), amino acids and essential fats from the body when consumed in excessive amounts. According to the American Heart Association, heavy alcohol intake increases such dangers as alcoholism, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, breast cancer, suicide and accidents. It's not possible to predict in which people alcoholism will become a problem. Given these and other risks, the American Heart Association cautions abstainers NOT to start drinking alcohol just to gain the purported health benefits of the drug. And always, consult your doctor on the benefits and risks of consuming alcohol in moderation.

What worries me about studies like these is that so many men and women who are desperate to lose weight will take this as a recommendation to drink more. I don't think that's too far-fetched, especially with the popularity of diet pills, weight-loss gimmicks, and recent reports that 80% of women would undergo risky weight-loss surgery to lose weight if they could. With so many naturally healthy foods and beverages to choose from, should we really be encouraging women to drink more alcohol in order to control their weight?

Admittedly, I do not drink alcohol. I come from a long line of family members who simply don't drink, and I guess they passed that lifestyle choice on to me. I would fit into the non-drinkers in this study, but I do not believe that I am doomed to become overweight or obese in the next dozen years just because that happened to some of the women studied here. And I'm definitely not going to start drinking now in order to prevent weight problems, as the outcome of this study seems to encourage.

What about you: Do you agree with the findings in this study? How has drinking, not drinking, or limiting alcohol affected your weight?