A new study shows that people who drink small amounts of alcohol are less likely to be obese than nondrinkers and those who drink lots of alcohol.

The study doesn’t prove that light drinking blocks extra pounds. The researchers aren’t encouraging anyone to start drinking to lose weight.

The researchers included Ahmed Arif, MD, PhD. Arif works in the family and community medicine department of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

The study appears online in BMC Public Health.

About the Study

Data came from a large U.S. health survey done from 1988-1994. The survey included participants’ body mass index (BMI), as well as their drinking habits.

Participants were asked how much and how frequently they drank. They didn’t specify whether they drank wine, beer, or liquor.

A total of 8,236 people were included. All were nonsmokers. Nearly half (46%) were current drinkers who drank at least one drink a month. The average BMI was about 26, at the lower end of the overweight BMI range.

A drink was defined as:

—12 ounces of beer

—4 ounces of wine

—1 ounce of liquor

No one was asked to change their drinking habits for the study. BMI and drinking habits were only checked once; they weren’t tracked for changes over time.

Study’s Findings

“Current drinkers had lower odds of obesity compared to nondrinkers,” Arif writes.

However, drinking a lot of alcohol made obesity more likely.

Binge drinkers (drinking five or more drinks in a single day) and those who reported drinking four or more daily alcoholic drinks were more likely to be obese than those who reported drinking one or two daily drinks.

Also, people who reported drinking modest amounts of alcohol frequently — totaling less than five weekly drinks, spread out over the week — had lower odds of obesity.

Not a Magic Bullet

Alcohol wasn’t a magic bullet against obesity. Almost a third of obese participants were current drinkers, the study shows.

In addition, alcohol was more weakly linked to lower odds of being overweight but not obese. That’s based on these BMI definitions:

—Overweight: BMI of 25-29.9

—Obese: BMI of 30 or more

Alcohol has calories and no nutrients. It’s also got a mix of risks and benefits.

Don’t Start Drinking for Weight Loss

The report shows a pattern between BMI and alcohol use, but it doesn’t nail down the connection.

Here are the researchers’ conclusions:

“Actively promoting moderate use of alcohol as a strategy to combat obesity would be inappropriate at this early stage of our understanding about the underlying mechanisms that link alcohol use with weight control,” write Arif and colleagues.

“Furthermore,” they continue, “it should be noted that the data give no evidence to advise nondrinkers to start drinking alcohol just for reducing body weight.

“However, the evidence reported here argues against a strategy of promoting complete abstention at least among those who regularly consume alcohol,” Arif’s team writes.

They call for studies to track drinkers’ weight over time to see if alcohol really protects against obesity.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Arif, A. BMC Public Health, Dec. 5, 2005; online edition. WebMD Weight Loss Clinic: “The Alcohol Debate: Should You or Shouldn’t You?” News release, BioMed Central.