Gabrielle Studenmund, 31, of Southern Pines, N.C., is trying to lose 10 to 20 pounds from her five-foot-five, 155-pound figure. She takes three-mile walks every day and watches calories carefully, but wonders whether giving up the glass of white wine (or sometimes two) that she has every night with dinner would make losing weight easier. At the same time, she doesnt want to say no if wine is really helping her stave off Alzheimers disease, a heart attack, or some other scary health problem.
The wine is probably doing more good than ill. In a study of almost 50,000 women, those who drank moderately (one drink per day) gained less weight than women who abstainedand less than those who had two or more drinks per day. Its not clear why, but study author Eric Rimm, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, thinks that alcohol may help burn calories. Plus, alcoholic beverages have no fat and typically have fewer calories than popular non-alcoholic beverages. A 5-ounce glass of red wine has 125 calories, for instance, but a Venti Cappuccino from Starbucks weighs in at 180.
Lisa Concepcion Giassa, 36, of Bogota, N.J., goes out every other night during the week with the girls for a pitcher of margaritas or sangria, and downs two to three drinks per outing. On the weekends she gets a little more crazy. “For me,” she says, “its five drinks and three shots, with water in between.” She prides herself on being the one who can put it away and still have her wits about her. Lisa isnt oblivious to the immediate dangerslike car accidents or simply falling downbut shes more worried about premature aging and the risks of a disease like breast cancer or osteoporosis.
Alcohol by itself wont make Lisa look old before her time. However, Rimm says, “Partiers tend to eat miscellaneous things at the bar (like greasy nachos, cheesy potato skins, and chicken wings) that arent great for them,” which can lead to that chunky, middle-age look. People who drink this way are also more likely than nondrinkers to smoke and to breathe in secondhand smoke in bars, which contributes to wrinkles and higher risks of heart disease and cancer. (Alcohol may also dehydrate you, and thats never good for the skin.)
Does having a drink or two take a toll on my energy?
Eliana Agudelo, 33, of San Francisco, loves rock climbing, hiking, and marathons. “Its part of who I am,” she says. “Being outdoors makes me feel alive, energetic, and connected to the Earth.” She also loves a good microbrew after a day outdoors and a glass of wine a few nights a week. She wants to know if shed stay in better shape or have more energy if she didnt drink at all.
A few drinks a week shouldnt affect Elianas performance, says Rimm, whether shes at the gym, in a road race, or on the trail. However, if alcoholic drinks end up cutting into her water intake during the day, she may get dehydrated. That can leave anyone feeling tired and less eager to work out. One more thing: Eliana should deep-six any drinking right before an athletic event or outing, as it takes four to six hours for the body to break down alcohol. Leave the beer at home, in other words, when youre rock climbing, and get high on nature when youre hiking. Otherwise, the risk of a bad fall rises fast.
The latest numbers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism are discouraging: One in three people will become hooked, to some degree, on alcohol at some point in their lives, and only one-quarter of people with a problem will get treated. Connie Stelter, 41, of St. Paul, Minn., has often wondered whether she might need help. She currently has just two drinks a week, but it wasnt long ago when four or five drinks three times a week was her norm. The heavy drinking happened after she suffered a divorce, two job layoffs, a burglary, and then more relationship turmoil. Now she worries shell end up like her brother, an alcoholic. “I know my drinking has really curbed my potential,” she says. Connie wants to know how to tell if she really has a problem, and, if so, what to do next.
Just wondering if you have a problem is a strong hint that you might, says Kevin Wildenhaus, PhD, director of behaviorial science for HealthMedia. Connies family history is another red flag. “People who have a family history of alcoholism have about three times the risk of becoming alcoholics,” Rimm says. “Some say that it could be that you grew up in a setting exposed to alcohol, but even those who grew up apart from their parents have a higher risk.” Most experts classify alcoholism as a disease because of the genetic component and the tendency of some people to become psychologically and physically addicted. They say that Connie shouldnt blame her brother for a personal failing. That attitude may lead her to blame herself and not seek help if she really does have a problem. Instead, Connie should talk to her doctor or a counselor.
Laura Faeth, 44, of Boulder, Colo., stopped drinking three years ago after experiencing a ton of abdominal pain during a night of partying. “I took it as a sign that my body didnt want alcohol anymore,” she says. Now she finds socializing just as much fun when shes sober. But since her father died of pancreatic cancer at 53 and his mom died of breast cancer at 50, Laura cant stop wondering whether she could lower her cancer risks by having some red wine every few days.
Women who dont drink at all do have a slightly higher risk for certain diseases than women who drink just a little. But thats no reason for Laura to start having wine with dinner in place of, say, water, or to throw down a few at the holiday party while toasting good health. (For tips on avoiding alcohol, read "Sneaky Ways to Just Say No to Alcohol.") “We know so much about how to be healthy already,” Rimm says. “If youre worried about the risk of diabetes and youre eating right, for example, adding alcohol wont do much more for you.”