As obesity levels keep rising in the United States and Europe, a team of Danish researchers has looked at whether one's drinking habits may contribute to a growing waistline. Their study of more than 57,000 drinkers found that men and women who have a drink or two a day, every day, were the least likely to pack on the pounds.
"It is quite evident that obesity is one of the main threats to health in the Western world," said noted alcohol-and-health researcher, Morten Grønbæk, coauthor of the study, which was conducted by the National Institute of Public Health in Copenhagen. "I think that our findings may help explain some of the causes, although it is extremely complex."
Drinking may play a role in weight gain because alcoholic beverages are "energy dense" and contribute to one's total daily energy intake, but the calories are considered comparatively "empty" in terms of nutritional value, said the study, which was published in a recent issue of the International Journal of Obesity.
The research looked at 57,053 Danes, ages 50 to 65, who participated in the larger Diet, Cancer and Health study, which took place from 1993 to 1997. The volunteers, who were recruited via mailed invites, reported on their dietary and beverage choices, as well as factors such as their level of education, social status and income. The subjects also visited a clinic, where data on their body size was recorded.
The current study, headed by Janne Tolstrup at the National Institute of Public Health, compared the body sizes of the participants--both by waistline size and body mass index (BMI)--to the frequency and amount of their alcohol consumption.
The researchers considered anyone with a waist circumference greater than 102 cm for men (40 inches) and 88 cm for women (nearly 35 inches) as obese. Anyone with a "high" BMI--greater than 30 kg per square meter (66 pounds per square yard)--was also considered obese.
The study only looked at drinkers who reported having at least one drink per month or more. Participants were categorized by frequency of consumption: between one to three days a month, around one day a week, two to four days per week, five or six days per week, or seven days a week. Subjects were also asked how many drinks they consumed on average in a week: one to six drinks, seven to 13, 14 to 20, 21 to 27, or more than 28. (This study defined a drink as having 12 grams or so of alcohol. Although the alcohol content of beverages can vary greatly, the average bottle of beer has around 12 grams, a 5-ounce glass of wine could have about 10 to 12 grams and a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor is closer to 15 grams.)
Because nondrinkers weren't included in the study, the scientists chose those who drank two to four days per week as the control group for drinking frequency, and those who had one to six drinks per week as the control group for studying intake levels. These groups contained the most participants and were selected "to avoid using either extreme of drinking frequency as a reference," Tolstrup explained.
Compared to the control group, the men who reported drinking more frequently were less likely to be obese, based on their BMI; those who drank five to six days per week were 13 percent less likely and those who drank seven days per week were 27 percent less likely. People who drank less often than the control group were more likely to be obese; those who drank one day per week were 17 percent more likely and those who drank one to three days per month were 39 percent more likely.
When analyzed by consumption amount, the men who drank seven to 13 and 14 to 20 drinks a week (or anywhere from one to just under three drinks per day) had a similar chance of being obese, as measured by BMI, as those who drank one to six drinks per week. However, men who reported drinking more were more likely to be obese than the control group; those who drank 21 to 27 drinks per week were 32 percent more likely and those who had more than 28 drinks per week were 78 percent more likely.
For both frequency and amount, the authors wrote, "Similar estimates were found for waist circumference. Corresponding results were found for women."
The study noted that in the groups at either extreme of drinking frequency--the highest and the lowest--more people tended to smoke and have worse habits overall, such as not eating many vegetables.
While frequent drinking was linked to a lower chance of obesity, the authors cautioned that this habit "may be associated with borderline addictive behavior" and people should drink in moderation. Grønbæk said the prevention of obesity is ultimately based on myriad personal choices, and people should be mindful of alcohol consumption's possible impact on health. "I do think people who binge drink should drink more sensibly," he added, "and for this and many other reasons, change [their] drinking pattern into a steadier one."
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