Heavy drinking in college can lead to obesity later in life

Heavy Drinking Leads to Obesity 05/10/2018

Heavy drinking in college can lead to obesity later in life

The "freshman 15"—the amount of weight often gained by first-year college students—might affect a person's life for years after college, according to a new study at the University of Kansas Medical Center. 

Research by Tera Fazzino, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the KU Medical Center, shows that heavy episodic drinking during early adulthood increases the risk of transitioning from a healthy weight to overweight or obesity five years later. KU researchers say this is the first study examining the effect of heavy episodic drinking—defined as five or more drinks in one episode for males, four or more for females—in young adulthood on weight over time. 

Sixty-five percent of American adults are overweight or obese, and weight gain happens most rapidly during young adulthood. Being overweight is a risk factor for chronic diseases, many different types of cancers, and also premature death. Most research on weight gain in young adults has focused on young people not getting enough exercise and consuming too much fast food and sugary beverages. Those are important factors, but so is alcohol use. Eighteen- to 24-year olds drink more than any other age group, and when they drink, they often have several drinks. Alcohol is highly caloric. When someone has four or five drinks in a single episode, that means the person may consume at least 600 liquid calories in one sitting. 

A gem of a find

The idea for the study stems from Fazzino's work in graduate school on the prevention of heavy episodic drinking in college. "I often thought of the caloric aspect of it. But this hasn't really been addressed in alcohol programs," she said. "Then I noticed that in obesity programs, alcohol wasn't targeted, and alcohol use wasn't even reported. The contributions from alcohol have largely been ignored. I thought that was curious, and that's why I wanted to do this study." 

Fortunately, Fazzino discovered the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a nationally representative sample of U.S. adolescents surveyed over time about health and risk behaviors from early high school into their thirties. "This data set was a gem of a find," said Fazzino. "It's longitudinal data, and the researchers asked all the target questions to evaluate heavy episodic drinking that are often overlooked, and they also provided measured height and weight data." 

Information that should be used

Fazzino found that heavy episodic drinking was associated with a 41 percent increased risk of transitioning from normal weight in people aged 18-26 to overweight in people aged 24-32. Most alarming, the study showed a 36 percent increased risk of transitioning from overweight to obese during that 5-6 year span. In addition, heavy episodic drinking was associated with higher odds of excess weight gain in general. "A lot of times alcohol prevention is focused on short and immediate consequences, but this is something that can stick with them even if their drinking habits change, and it might negatively impact health outcomes later in life," Fazzino said. "Your weight class in young adulthood is highly predictive of your weight class when you are older." 

Kimberly Fleming, PhD., Kenneth Sher, Ph.D., Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., and Christie Befort, PhD., are co-authors on the study.

"Heavy drinking may put people at higher risk for weight gain and transitioning to obesity, Fazzino said. "This is information that should be used in obesity prevention efforts targeted to young adults, and it can be used in alcohol prevention efforts as well." 

Feature provided courtesy of the University of Kansas School of Medicine.