Wine drinkers who want to avoid gaining weight over the holidays may not need to cut out their favorite beverage in order to do so, according to new research published in the Dec. 5 issue of the medical journal BMC Public Health.
Light to moderate drinking was not associated with being overweight or obese, the study reported, although heavy drinking was.
Study coauthor Jim Rohrer, a researcher in the department of family medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Kasson, Minn., said that the general public sometimes perceives alcohol consumption as a surefire way to gain weight. And when most people go on diets, drinking alcohol is usually one of the first things to go.
"People who want to lose weight might be tempted to eliminate alcohol as their sole dietary change," Rohrer said. "However, our findings suggest that if a person eliminates alcohol from his diet, then he might actually gain weight." Other factors could account for some of the weight differences: Light to moderate drinkers tended to exercise more, be healthier overall, be better educated and earn higher incomes than the other participants.
One motivation for the study was the rising rates of obesity in the United States, Rohrer explained. Furthermore, he wanted to follow up on recent research that has suggested that regular, moderate alcohol consumption may be linked to lower rates of obesity. Another study also found that wine drinkers in particular tended to have slimmer waistlines than abstainers or heavy drinkers.
In the current study, the researchers examined data on 8,236 people who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III, which was conducted from 1988 to 1994. That study sought to acquire information on the lifestyle practices of Americans over the age of 18 and how those choices affected their overall health. The survey included questionnaires, in-person interviews and physical examinations, using mobile centers that traveled across the country to various survey sites. Overall, more than 30,000 people participated, providing information on their dietary and drinking habits, income and education levels and other factors.
For the current study, the team excluded pregnant women, male or female smokers and anyone with incomplete or inconsistent information on their drinking patterns.
They categorized people according to how much alcohol they consumed in a typical day: one drink, two, three or four or more. (A drink was defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine or 1 ounce of liquor.) They did not analyze consumption by beverage type.
The researchers compared the rates of obesity among the drinkers and nondrinkers and came up with a risk factor for being obese. Those who consumed one or two drinks a day were 54 percent and 41 percent less likely to be obese, respectively, than nondrinkers. Consuming three drinks a day raised one's risk by 7 percent and consuming more than four by 46 percent.
The team also looked at people who were overweight, as opposed to obese, and found similar results: Consuming one to two drinks was associated with a lower chance of being overweight than abstaining was, while consuming three or four or more drinks was associated with a greater chance.
Participants were considered overweight if their body mass index was greater than or equal to 25 kilograms per square meter, and obese if their BMI was greater than or equal to 30 kilograms per square meter.
The study dispels the idea that any amount of alcohol automatically packs on pounds, Rohrer said, while showing the risk of drinking large quantities. "People who don't drink shouldn't start just to lose weight," Rohrer said. "But people who drink heavily should cut back."
He added, "We do not recommend using alcohol as therapy for obesity. The best advice for people who want to lose weight is to reduce total calories while maintaining a balanced diet and getting at least some physical activity."
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