The more alcohol a person drinks, the less likely he or she is to be eating a healthy diet, a new study shows.
"People who drank the largest quantity, even infrequently, had the poorest diets," Dr. Rosalind A. Breslow of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Md., the study's lead author, told Reuters Health.
A number of studies have linked moderate alcohol consumption with a lower risk of dying from heart disease, Breslow and her colleagues note in the American Journal of Epidemiology. But healthy habits -- like drinking in moderation and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables -- tend to go hand in hand, they add, so it is difficult to separate out how much of alcohol's heart healthy effects may be due to the way moderate drinkers tend to eat.
Most studies evaluate average volume of alcohol consumption over time, the researchers note, which does not take into account how frequently a person drinks or how much he or she drinks on "drinking days." So Breslow and her team looked at frequency and average consumption on drinking days, as well as average volume, for 3,729 adults aged 20 and over from the 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They rated diet quality using the Healthy Eating Index, which measures how closely a person's eating habits resemble US Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid recommendations.
The average Healthy Eating Index score for participants who consumed one drink on an average drinking day was 65.3 (out of a possible 100), compared to 61.9 for people who had three drinks a day or more on the days when they drank. There was no significant difference in diet quality between people who drank the most based on average volume and those who drank the least.
But the more frequently a person drank, the better his or her diet; people who drank the least frequently scored 60.9, compared to 64.9 for those who drank the most often. The people who drank the most alcohol, but drank the least often, had the worst diets, but diet quality was best among the more-frequent, lower-quantity drinkers.
Breslow admits the findings, which were conducted to help better analyze studies looking at how diet and alcohol consumption influences health, are confusing. But basically, she adds, they underscore the importance of eating a healthy diet and drinking moderately -- one alcoholic beverage daily or less for women, two or less for men -- for health.
"People who drank in lower amounts closer to the recommendations had better diets, so you're seeing sort of healthy behaviors traveling together," she said. "It's sort of like a puzzle -- healthy behaviors are all intertwined."