The media is filled today with the glorious news that women who drink don't get fat. Well they don't get as fat as their non-drinking friends.
But before you run to the bar, let's look at how this conclusion came about. (Bottles of wine from CBS.)
The study, from the Archives of Internal Medicine, is a re-examination of data from the Womens' Health Study, which ended last year. The goal of that study had been to look at low-dose aspirin and Vitamin E in preventing heart attacks.
What Lu Wang and her colleagues at Brigham and Womens Hospital did was look at two fields in that database, self-reported alcohol use and weight gain over the course of the study.
They concluded that, while men tend to pile alcohol on top of their regular diets, women may use a drink in the evening in lieu of food. This limits their food intake and keeps the pounds from adding up.
Well, maybe. But this is a study of about 19,000 women. And this is self-reported alcohol intake.
I may estimate how much I drink to a doctor, but I don't count the drinks each night and give an accurate total. I suspect most people don't.
That's the limit of all these studies which take old data and seek new interpretations from it. You're taking something made to prove X and getting it to prove Y. You're taking a sample that may be valid in size for one purpose and turning it into something else.
It's not just true here. I don't want to be seen as looking down at Dr. Wang. This is how we have to do things right now. Our data stores are limited to those created for specific purposes in the past. It reminds me of using a chemical process to mine old gold tailings.
There are two points in the health IT revolution. One point is to avoid mistakes and treat you more efficiently. The other is to collect data, vast mines of data, for studies like these.
Some time in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to look at data on millions of women and parse it carefully so we get their actual intake, not an estimate, and a firm result on this question.
But that time is not now. Even though my lovely wife does enjoy a glass of red with dinner. I just see it makes her happy. She'll always be a size two to me.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com