March 15, 2017 – As alcohol gender gap narrows, women’s risk of addiction increases
Recent research makes the pattern with women and alcohol clear. Analyzing 68 alcohol-use studies from around the world dating to the mid-1900s, Australian researchers found a remarkably steady “gender convergence.” Their review and analysis, published in October, showed that men born in the early 20th century were more than twice as likely as women to drink and three times as likely to have an alcohol problem – but for those born closer to the end of the century, those ratios were 1.1 and 1.2 to 1, respectively. In other words, the difference between male and female drinking had all but disappeared.
The main problem with women drinking like men is that they don’t have the same physiology as men. Women are more susceptible to alcohol’s effects, largely because they have lower body mass, and in particular less water to disperse the alcohol through their bodies. “Therefore, a woman’s brain and other organs are exposed to more alcohol and to more of the toxic byproducts that result when the body breaks down and eliminates alcohol,” notes the NIAAA, part of the National Institutes of Health.
In the short term, alcohol is quicker to affect women’s ability to function. Long term, women who drink are more likely than men who drink to develop breast cancer, alcoholic hepatitis and certain heart problems.
Food addiction, in contrast, can lead to weight gain and its well-documented health effects, including higher risks of diabetes and heart disease. Food addiction is still an emerging field of research, but the relatively few studies so far that sort data by gender show that women appear to be more vulnerable here, too. Of the 652 adults who participated in a 2013 Canadian study, more than twice as many women as men met the Yale Food Addiction Scale criteria for food addiction. And a 2016 U.S. study designed to test an update of the Yale Scale found that “gender was significantly associated with addictive-like eating symptoms with women, on average, reporting a higher number of symptoms” than men.
Ashley Gearhardt, the lead developer of the Yale Food Addiction Scale, noted that women might be more vulnerable to addictive eating patterns because of “so many pressures” in their lives – “pressures in the workplace, pressures regarding child care.”
And there are other social pressures. “Women, more than men, are held to unattainable beauty ideals against the backdrop of a toxic food environment,” she said. “This can increase the likelihood that women will bounce back and forth between the extremes of intense dietary restriction and binge eating.”