College Women Don't Need to Binge to Over-Drink

College students drinking
College students raise a toast. (Image credit: Lucky Business, Shutterstock)

College guys may outdrink women on any given night, but new research finds that the ladies are more likely than their male counterparts to exceed weekly alcohol limits.

During the academic year, about 65 percent of the freshman women in the study drank more than the seven-drink weekly limit recommended for women by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), according to the new research published today (May 17) in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. In comparison, 60 percent of men exceeded their recommended limit of 14 drinks weekly.

Women also blew past their weekly limits more frequently than did men, with the average woman drinking more than the recommended amount in 15 percent of the weeks in a school year, By comparison, the average guy exceeded the limit during just 12 percent of the weeks in the school year.

The genders exceeded daily drinking limits by similar amounts, however, the researchers found. The NIAAA recommends women drink no more than three drinks daily, and men no more than four.

"We do know that women are much more likely to have risk for disease at much lower levels of alcohol consumption" than are men, study researcher Bettina Hoeppner, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School's Center for Addiction Medicine, told LiveScience. "I don't think that's information that's readily available to college students, or something they really think about." [10 Easy Paths to Self Destruction]

Drinking risks

The NIAAA  based its recommendations on the fact that women absorb alcohol more efficiently than men, and have lower body weight, so on average, their limits are stricter.

College students are often warned of the dangers of binging on alcohol, but few programs warn that chronic drinking also comes with risks, such as liver disease, cancer and heart disease — even if it doesn't include binge drinking.

Hoeppner and her colleagues wanted to understand how drinking behaviors change over the college years. They recruited 992 incoming freshman at three northeastern universities. Over the course of the entire academic year, the students filled out biweekly email surveys about their recent alcohol consumption.

The results revealed that exceeding alcohol guidelines is common for college students: About 65 percent did so at least once, and 85 percent of those who reported ever drinking said they had drunk to excess at some point.  

The finding that women exceeded weekly limits more than men did was concerning, Hoeppner said, particularly because men became less and less likely to exceed those limits as the year wore on, while women showed no such decrease.

Alcohol education

Part of the problem may be the gap between what women are told is safe to drink daily, compared with what men are told. On a single day, women can drink 80 percent of what men drink (three drinks to men's four). Over the course of a week, though, a woman should drink no more than half of what's safe for a man, to avoid heightened risk of chronic disease, the NIAAA finds.

Since seven drinks is a woman's safe limit for the week, a nightly glass of wine with dinner, and two drinks each on Friday and Saturday night can send a woman over the top, Hoeppner said.

"They're not getting drunk at any point. They're not binge drinking," she said of such a pattern. The findings suggest, however, that students need more education on the health risks of chronic drinking, Hoeppner said.

"I think it's important to at least in some way provide some education so that women don't establish unhealthy drinking patterns as they leave college," Hoeppner said.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.