Behind the Headlines

Wednesday July 25 2007

Binge-drinking reduces men’s intake of essential fatty acids (EFAs), which are crucial for concentration and memory, reported The Daily Telegraph. It went on to explain that 'heavy drinkers need to consume more omega-3 EFAs' and that 'their diets contain lower amounts of the important nutrients'.

This was generally a well-conducted study, which suggests that dietary intake of essential fatty acids, found in fish, leafy vegetables and a range of other foods, is lower in men with high alcohol consumption. The authors acknowledge some limitations of the study and state that further research is required.   

Where did the story come from?

The research was conducted by Soo Yeon Kim and colleagues from National Institutes of Health, Maryland, US. It was published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

What kind of scientific study was this?

The study is a cross-sectional study investigating the relationship between self-reported alcohol consumption and dietary fatty acid intake.  

This study was part of a cross-sectional survey of the US population (not institutionalised), the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2002. People chosen for inclusion in the study were interviewed at home, followed by an interview at a mobile examination centre. This study included 4,168 people aged 20 years and over. The interviewers asked participants about their diet in the previous 24 hours to assess fatty acid intake, and about their alcohol consumption in the past year.

What were the results of the study?

The researchers found that the intake of essential fatty acids decreased as alcohol consumption increased in men. In binge-drinking men, the total intake of essential fatty acids was decreased. As alcohol consumption increased in women, the intake of total saturated fats was decreased, but there was no difference in the total intake of polyunsatured or monounsaturated fats. There was no link between binge-drinking and fatty acid intake in women.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The authors conclude that their results 'suggest that alcohol consumption may affect the dietary intake of essential fatty acids (EFAs)' in men. They recommend that 'prospective studies of the relation should be considered' because of the 'public health importance of both alcohol consumption and intakes of EFAs'.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

This is a well-conducted study, which suggests that men with higher levels of alcohol consumption consume foods with lower fatty acid content than men with lower levels of alcohol consumption.

The study did not assess levels of fatty acids in the body, so it does not show whether alcohol causes a decrease in these levels. There are limitations to the study, which are acknowledged by the authors: 

  • The sample included a relatively small number of people. A larger sample may have provided more reliable results for both men and women.  
  • Information on the fatty acid content of many foods is lacking (particularly meat) so the intake of fatty acids may have been underestimated.
  • The analysis of fatty acids was limited to dietary intake, and did not include fatty acid supplements. 

The authors state that further research is needed to 'clarify the relationship between alcohol consumption and dietary fatty acid intake to determine the extent to which altered dietary fatty acid intake may be a factor mediating alcohol-related diseases'.

The link demonstrated in this study does not tell us much about a causal relationship, if any, between the two factors. It reinforces advice for moderate eating and drinking habits.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Binge-drinking ‘causes drop in omega-3 levels’. The Daily Telegraph, July 25 2007

Links to the science

Kim SY, Breslow RA, Ahn J, Salem N. Alcohol consumption and Fatty Acid intakes in the 2001-2002 national health and nutrition examination survey. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 2007; 31:1407-1414

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