In their study, published in the August issue of Journal of Nutrition, the researchers report that men and women who drank infrequently but heavily had more abdominal fat or "central adiposity," as measured by abdominal height, than people who consumed the same amount but drank regularly. Abdominal height is the amount that the abdomen extends above the torso when a person lies on his or her back and has been correlated highly with abdominal fat stores.
The type of alcohol consumed appeared to contribute differently to the accumulation of abdominal fat, findings showed. Wine drinkers showed the lowest abdominal height, while liquor drinkers had the highest. Beer as an alcohol source wasn't associated with central adiposity.
In addition, current drinkers, those who had consumed alcohol within the past 30 days, had lower abdominal height than both men and women abstainers.
"Our goal was to find out if the way people drink can affect this known risk factor (abdominal fat accumulation) for heart disease," said Joan Dorn, Ph.D., UB associate professor of social and preventive medicine in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions and lead author on the study.
"The primary message is that binge drinking is an unhealthy way of consuming alcohol," said Dorn. "These results do not suggest that persons with abdominal fat should start drinking."
Dorn and colleagues conducted the study in 2,343 men and women selected randomly from the general population to serve as healthy controls in the Western New York Health Study, a series of case-control studies that examine alcohol drinking patterns and chronic disease risk.
The participants were between the ages of 35 and 79 and had never been treated for heart disease. They underwent a physical examination that included blood pressure, heart rate, height, weight and abdominal height, measured with special calipers while laying flat on their backs.
Researchers collected information on alcohol consumption during the past 30 days, covering beverage type (beer, wine, wine coolers and hard liquor), total grams of alcohol, drinking intensity (number of drinks consumed per drinking day), drinking frequency and drinking with or without food.
Categories of frequency were: lifetime abstainers, non-current drinkers (did not consume alcohol during the past 30 days) and current drinkers (consumed a least one alcoholic beverage during the past 30 days).
Current drinkers were broken down into daily, weekly and less-than-weekly drinkers. Weekly drinkers were defined further into weekend-only drinkers and throughout-the-week drinkers. Other lifestyle habits -- smoking, physical activity, diet, disease prevalence, prescription drug use and, for women, menopausal status -- also were recorded.
Analysis of the variables showed that small amounts of alcohol consumed on a regular basis were associated with the smallest abdominal heights, while participants who drank sporadically but intensely -- more than 3-4 drinks per drinking occasion -- had the highest measures. However, within all categories of drinking frequency, the number of drinks mattered. In both men and women, the more drinks per drinking day, the higher the abdominal measurement, results showed.
"These findings support what has been shown in other studies about the beneficial effect of moderate drinking on heart disease," said Dorn. "It also is more evidence that the way people drink is important, and not just the amount of alcohol consumed."
Additional researchers on the study were Kathleen Hovey, Paula Muti, M.D., Jo Freudenheim, Ph.D., and Maurizio Trevisan, M.D., from the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions; Marcia Russell, Ph.D., from the Preventive Research Center in Berkeley, Calif., and Thomas H. Nochajski, Ph.D., from the UB School of Social Work.
The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.