So…This Glass of Wine Isn’t Good For My Health?
Since April is Alcohol Awareness Month (also tax month – is there a connection?), we thought it would be as good a time as any to bring you this updated news about the effects of moderate drinking.
For decades, scientific studies have suggested that moderate drinking was better for most people’s health than not drinking at all. Some studies even noted that moderate drinking could help people live longer. But a new analysis of more than 40 years of research has concluded that many of those studies were flawed and that the opposite is true.
The new report, which analyzed almost 5,000,000 adults and more than 100 studies, was not designed to develop new drinking recommendations, but to review past studies for accuracy.
What they found is that most of the reviewed studies were observational and didn’t have rigid scientific processes, meaning they did not prove cause and effect and therefore could identify links or associations that could be misleading.
For example, when you compare different groups of people without a control group, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Once the researchers corrected these errors and others, the supposed health benefits of drinking shrank dramatically, and the risk of many different health problems increased significantly.
First let’s define our terms. What is considered moderate alcohol use depends on a person’s body weight and liver size, so generally women need to consume less alcohol than men.
What is Moderate Alcohol Use?
- Men – 2 drinks or fewer a day
- Women – 1 drink a day
What is Excessive Alcohol Use?
- Binge drinking, defined as consuming 5 or more drinks on an occasion for men, or 4 or more drinks on an occasion for women.
- Heavy drinking, defined as 15 or more drinks per week for men, or 8 or more drinks per week for women.
- Any alcohol use by pregnant women or people younger than 21.
The idea that moderate drinking may be beneficial dates back to 1924, when a Johns Hopkins biologist published a graph showing that moderate drinkers had the lowest rates of mortality from all causes. These findings appeared to be replicated in many additional review studies since then.
But a review of the review studies showed that people who drink alcohol in moderation tend to be moderate in all ways; they tend to be wealthier, are more likely to exercise and eat a healthy diet and are less likely to be overweight. They even have better teeth! The review also showed that people who abstain completely from alcohol are a minority, and those who don’t abstain for religious reasons are more likely to have chronic health problems, a disability, or come from lower income backgrounds.
Basically, attempting to compare these two groups resulted in inaccurate results, just like trying to compare apples to oranges.
So, even though the new analysis suggests that those who drink in moderation live longer than those who do not, it is now clear that no one should drink alcohol with the sole purpose of obtaining potential health benefits and some individuals should not drink at all, including women who are pregnant, those less than 21 years old, and people who have certain medical conditions or take medications that can interact with alcohol.
Why Do We Think Drinking Alcohol Could Provide Health Benefits?
In the last 20 years or so, wine, particularly red wine, has developed a reputation for having health benefits due to its high concentration of a protective antioxidant called resveratrol, which is also found in blueberries and cranberries.
But since the alcohol industry’s role in funding research that supports moderate drinking has come to light, newer studies have found that even moderate consumption of alcohol, including red wine, may contribute to cancer, high blood pressure, liver disease, and heart disease.
Other Countries are Warning Their Citizens
In January 2023, Canada issued new guidelines stating that no amount of alcohol consumption is healthy and recommended that people reduce alcohol consumption as much as possible. The new guidance was a stark departure from those published in 2011, which recommended that women limit themselves to no more than 10 standard drinks a week and men no more than 15. Current Canadian recommendations say that consuming even two standard drinks a week is associated with health risks, and seven or more weekly drinks carry a high level of risk.
The Bottom Line:
Current U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that men limit themselves to two drinks or fewer a day and women to one if they are going to drink at all, and that no one should drink alcohol for the express purpose of improving their health. Also, it’s not a great idea to save all your daily drinks for one big night. Binge drinking creates a bunch of problems beyond the ones listed above including, risk of falling, poor decision-making, a compromised immune system and sleep disorders, to name a few.
If you are a moderate or heavy drinker and want to reduce your intake, talk with your health care provider for help with strategies to shift toward more healthy habits. Many communities are also increasing efforts to support effective strategies for reducing alcohol intake including social and physical environments that discourage excessive alcohol use, such as “bars” that serve non-alcoholic drinks, restricting the number of liquor licenses allowed in one area, and increasing the price of alcohol by increasing alcohol taxes.