Young women, alcohol and obesity

Fact sheet

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Women are drinking at risky levels

According to the most recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey (2010), 29.8% of women over the age of 14 years, had consumed alcohol at risky levels (defined more than 4 standard drinks in one sitting) at least once in the previous year.1

Women have specific risks when consuming alcohol

Women tend to weigh less than men and have less water in their bodies to dilute the alcohol consumed.Therefore, a woman’s internal organs are exposed to more alcohol and to more of the toxic byproducts that result when the body breaks down alcohol.3 For this reason, women generally reach intoxication quicker, may become addicted sooner, and may develop alcohol-related problems more quickly than men with similar drinking patterns.4

Health risks

1. Women are more likely than men to be affected by health problems such as:
2. alcoholic liver disease;
3. alcohol-induced brain damage;
4. cancer, including breast cancer; and
5. alcohol-related heart disease.5

Safety risks

Heavy drinking increases a woman’s risk of becoming a victim of violence and sexual assault, including rape.6 This can be attributed to environmental factors (heavy drinking tends to occur in contexts where there are other people who are also drinking heavily); cognitive impairments (through alcohol reducing a person’s ability to evaluate risks effectively); and, motor impairments (through alcohol reducing a person’s physical ability to resist attack effectively).7

Risks while pregnant or breastfeeding

Drinking alcohol while pregnant can negatively impact on the baby’s developing brain and motor skills development and lead to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders which are lifelong disabilities. There is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol recommend that:

A) For women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option.
B) For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option.8

Alcohol consumption may also contribute to overweight and obesity

Alcohol adds calories to your diet. Alcohol has no nutrients yet has a high energy value, second only to fat which is the most energy-dense macronutrient.9 To put this into perspective, the table below indicates the number of kilojoules and calories in different beverage types, what this equates to in food terms, and how much exercise is needed to burn off the amount of kilojoules.

These are approximate values only. The number of kilojoules varies over different varieties of the same product. The amount of exercise required to burn off kilojoules also varies between individuals. Reference: Sports Medicine Australia Tipping the Balance10 and calorieking.com.au

Alcohol tends to increase appetite and encourage poor eating habits11 adding yet more empty calories into your diet. According to research there is a link between alcohol consumption and weight gain. Associations between the two are heavily influenced by a number of factors including: patterns and levels of drinking, gender, body weight, diet and genes, although the exact nature of these interactions are yet to be fully understood.12

What we do know is this:

  • Amount matters: Heavy drinkers (described in various studies as anywhere between two and four alcoholic drinks per day) are at higher risk of obesity than moderate drinkers.13
  • Patterns of drinking matter: Heavy, but less frequent drinkers (binge drinkers) seem to be at higher risk of obesity than moderate but frequent drinkers.14
  • Alcohol consumption and excess body weight act together to increase the likelihood of developing liver cirrhosis: Several international scientific studies have shown this. A large UK study of middle aged women found that the absolute risk of liver cirrhosis with increasing BMI (Body Mass Index) was substantially
    greater for women who drank 150g (roughly 15 standard drinks) or more of pure alcohol per week than for those who drank less than 70g (7 standard drinks) a week.15

Low carb does not equal healthier

‘Low carb’ beers and wines are becoming more widely available in the market and it may be tempting to switch to these varieties in order to reduce your caloric intake. You need to be aware, however, that while these low carb drinks are lower in carbohydrate than regular varieties, the alcohol and kilojoule content is often very similar to other types of beer and wine.16

Things to consider if you choose to drink alcohol

If you choose to drink alcohol, bear in mind that:

  • Healthy adults should drink no more than two standard drinks on any day to reduce the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury. The lifetime risk of death from alcohol-related disease more than triples when consumption increases from two to three standard drinks a day.17
  • For any one occasion of drinking (an occasion being defined as a period of time at which the blood alcohol level does not return to zero), no more than four standard drinks should be consumed in order to reduce the risk of incurring alcohol-related injury from that occasion. Bear in mind that each drinking occasion also contributes to the lifetime risk of alcohol-related health problems.18
  • Alcohol is a significant contributor to your daily kilojoule intake. The recommended daily kilojoule intakevaries for individuals and depends on a number of factors such as gender, weight and your usual amount of physical activity. On average, a man requires 10,500kJ (2,500 calories) daily and a woman requires 8,400kJ (2,000 calories) daily to maintain their weight.19
  • When drinking alcohol, take care that you are not robbing yourself of other essential nutrients. One veryimportant nutrient that is often ‘replaced’ by alcohol is water. Even though alcohol is a liquid, it is also a strong diuretic and can increase fluid loss from the body. Most health authorities recommend that adults
    consume between 1.5 to 2 litres of water a day.20

References

1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011). 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey report. Canberra: AIHW.
2 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2005). 2004 National Drug Strategy Household Survey: Detailed Findings. Canberra: AIHW.
3 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (2008). Women and drinking. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochurewomen/women.
htm#drinking Accessed 19 November 2012.
4 http://alcoholism.about.com/cs/women/a/aa981111.htm
5 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (2008). Women and drinking. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochurewomen/women.
htm#drinking Accessed 19 November 2012.
6 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (2008). Women and drinking. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochurewomen/women.
htm#drinking Accessed 19 November 2012.
7 Abbey, A. et al. (2001). Alcohol and sexual assault. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-1/43-51.htm. Accessed 18 December 2012.
8 National Health and Medical Research Council. (2009). Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
9 National Obesity Observatory, NHS. (2012) Obesity and alcohol: An overview. http://www.noo.org.uk/uploads/doc/vid_14627_Obesity_and_alcohol.pdf
10 Sports Medicine Australia, Tipping the Balance, 2007, Presentation for Athletes. Project Commissioned by Alcohol Education Rehabilitation Foundation.
11 National Health and Medical Research Council. (2003) Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults. Commonwealth of Australia.
12 National Obesity Observatory, NHS. (2012) Obesity and alcohol: An overview. http://www.noo.org.uk/uploads/doc/vid_14627_Obesity_and_alcohol.pdf
13 National Obesity Observatory, NHS. (2012) Obesity and alcohol: An overview. http://www.noo.org.uk/uploads/doc/vid_14627_Obesity_and_alcohol.pdf
14 National Obesity Observatory, NHS. (2012) Obesity and alcohol: An overview. http://www.noo.org.uk/uploads/doc/vid_14627_Obesity_and_alcohol.pdf
15 National Obesity Observatory, NHS. (2012) Obesity and alcohol: An overview. http://www.noo.org.uk/uploads/doc/vid_14627_Obesity_and_alcohol.pdf
16 Miller, P., McKenzie, S., De Groot, F.P., Davoren, S., Leslie, E. (2010). The Growing Popularity of “Low-Carb” Beers: Good Marketing or Community Health Risk? The
Medical Journal of Australia, 192 (4).
17 National Health and Medical Research Council. (2009). Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
18 National Health and Medical Research Council. (2009). Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
19 NHS. (2012). What should my daily intake of calories be? http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/1126.aspx?categoryid=51&subcategoryid=165. Accessed 18 December 2012.
20 National Health and Medical Research Council. (2003). Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.