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Rethinking Drinking: Do the Benefits of Alcohol Outweigh the Risks?

Moderate alcohol consumption has been linked with a longer life. But new research questions the benefits of even moderate drinking. What's the right amount for you?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
July 4, 2018
Episode #484
image of liquor bottles at a bar

For decades we’ve been hearing about the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Drinking a lot of alcohol is obviously not good for you. But some analyses show that people who drink a little alcohol seem to live longer and be healthier than those who don’t drink at all.

The Correlation Between Alcohol and Longevity

There are several possible explanations for this. The correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and longevity might have nothing to do with alcohol. It could be that people who drink moderately tend to have healthier diets and lifestyles than those who don’t drink at all. The higher death rate among teetotalers could simply reflect that people who are in poor health (and therefore more likely to die younger) are also less likely to drink.

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Another possibility is that small amounts of alcohol might have beneficial effects on the body. For example, alcohol reduces the tendency of blood to form clots, which might reduce the risk of stroke. 

As a society, we seem to have latched onto this idea that small amounts of alcohol are actually beneficial. This perception is helped along by the alcohol industry, which funds research designed to show that drinking is both safe and beneficial. Moderate alcohol consumption is often listed as a feature of healthy dietary patterns, such as the vaunted Mediterranean Diet.

But have we just been telling ourselves what we want to hear?

A new meta-analysis, comparing drinking patterns and life expectancy of more than half a million people from 19 different countries, finds that anything over 5 drinks a week is linked with shorter life expectancy and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

What Is "Moderate" Drinking?

The definition of "moderate" alcohol consumption differs from country to country, suggesting that cultural norms and attitudes about alcohol may play at least as much a role as actual data. Here in the U.S., for example, we define moderate consumption as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. Sweden sets the bar lower, France quite a bit higher. According to this latest analysis, however, all of these recommended limits could still put you at increased risk.

The only way to reduce your risk of alcohol-related harm to zero is to reduce your consumption to zero. But remember that risk is merely an expression of statistical probability. It does not predict the future. Some people who don’t drink at all will die younger than some people who drink way too much. The real question that each of us needs to answer is whether the benefits of drinking alcohol outweigh the risks.

Let's be clear: We don’t need to drink alcohol to keep our hearts healthy. Foods like ginger, garlic, and oily fish have the same or better blood-thinning effects as alcohol. And you can get all of the beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols that you’d get from red wine by drinking a shot of grape or pomegranate juice.

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