Women who drink alcohol moderately gain less weight than women who do not drink at all. Is moderate drinking resulting in true weight loss or are there other factors involved?
Here’s something for women to toast: a study just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that women who drink moderately gain less weight than women who do not drink at all. The results seem counterintuitive, given the caloric content of alcoholic beverages and the expectation that drinking might entice women to sit around in a pleasant stupor instead of burning off calories at the gym. But after following 19,220 women enrolled in a long-term women’s health study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for 13 years, the researchers found that moderate drinking did indeed correlate to reduced weight gain.
The women, aged 39 or older, all began the study at healthy weights. Sixty percent claimed they drank lightly or moderately, and 40 percent did not drink at all. The study controlled for factors that might influence weight gain, including exercise, smoking, and diet. As the study progressed, 41 percent of the women crossed the line to become overweight or obese, with the nondrinkers leading that trend. In fact, those who did not drink became overweight at a 30 percent higher rate than the women who had a drink or two daily. The nondrinkers gained nine pounds, on average, over the course of the study, while the moderate drinkers gained only three.
Some drinks had more impact on keeping weight down than others, with red wine the most beneficial, but beer and spirits also did the trick to a lesser degree. Considering that a glass of wine averages about 125 calories while a pina colada tips in at 450 or so, it makes sense that two pina coladas would have a far greater impact on the waistline than two glasses of wine. But the researchers think it’s more than calories that make the difference in red wine’s beneficial impact. They believe that resveratrol, a compound found in grapes and wine, deserves at least some of the credit. In 2008, researchers at the University of Ulm in Germany reported that resveratrol inhibited the development of new fat cells, plus it hindered the storage of fat already in cells. Resveratrol also is credited for the beneficial cardiac effects of red wine.
So is resveratrol the lone hero making wine a weight loss boon? Well, probably not considering how little there is in red wine these days (about 1 mg per glass). So what’s going on here? In fact, researchers believe that the key factor is that women tend to substitute drinks for food, unlike men, who prefer to have their cake and drink beer too. Men eat normally when they drink and so drinking leads to weight gain for them, plain and simple. Just think of the iconic image of men sitting around TV watching a football game — fronted by a couple of pepperoni pizzas, a case of beer, and assorted bags of Cheetos and pork rinds. But women cut back on the food filling up on the beverages instead, and so their overall caloric intake goes down, particularly if their drink of choice is a low-calorie glass of wine.
But before you chuck the Jenny Craig and run out to Costco to stock up on discount wine, there are several factors to consider. First, as I’ve written before, studies show that drinking ups the cancer risk considerably. In fact, a study of over one million women at Oxford University in 2009 found that drinking even one glass of wine daily leads to a significant increase in the risk of certain cancers. Those who drank two glasses a day doubled that risk, showing a 12 percent increase in breast cancer, a 22 percent rise in laryngeal cancer, and significant increases in cancers of the rectum, liver, and mouth. A separate study that same year out of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, Washington, found no difference in breast cancer risk when comparing wine, beer, and liquor, and concluded that those who had two drinks daily increased their risk of developing breast cancer by 24 percent. And in yet another study, Harvard researchers pooled and analyzed six studies and found that for every 10 grams of alcohol a woman drinks per day, her risk of breast cancer increases by 9 percent. (Ten grams is slightly more than a third of an ounce. A shot of scotch–or a jigger–is about 1.5 ounces.) “The risks far outweigh the benefits,” said Naomi Allen, the director of the Seattle study. That conclusion seems to apply in the weight-loss arena, as well.
It’s also significant to note that more isn’t better. After the second drink, the weight starts piling on for women as well as for men. Remember, a five-ounce serving of red wine has 125 calories, a shot of Scotch has 107 calories, a twelve-ounce serving of beer has 153 calories, and mixed drinks have far more. The study specified that only moderate drinkers — again, one or two daily — fared well in relation to weight gain. The other purported benefits of drinking also decline after two.
In any event, substituting alcohol for food, even if it prevents weight gain, doesn’t make sense nutrition-wise. Cancer risk aside, calories from chardonnay or a sugary Pina Colada just can’t match calories from fresh organic foods for the energy content and nutritional value they deliver. Deliberately drinking to lose weight is like buying risky stocks to save for your kid’s college fund. You just might reap the benefits you hope for, but on the other hand, there are more reliable and safer pathways to the goal — such as dietary wisdom and exercise.
And finally, keep in mind that the women involved in the study didn’t actually lose weight — they only gained it a little more slowly.