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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,
Episode #484
image of liquor bottles at a bar

If you enjoy the flavor of alcoholic beverages, or the pleasant sensations that accompany the alcohol-triggered release of endorphins, or the social aspects of sharing a drink in good company, those could be counted as benefits. If you’re enjoying those benefits to the tune of five or fewer drinks a week, you’re at very low risk. If your consumption is between five and ten drinks per week, you are at slightly higher risk, but that might be a risk that you’re willing to accept in exchange for those benefits. The more you drink, of course, the fewer the benefits and the higher your risk. Once you’re above ten drinks a week, the risks start to climb rather exponentially.

I think it’s also important to recognize that simply counting drinks per week can give us an incomplete or distorted picture. Mary drinks one glass of wine with dinner every night. Joe doesn’t drink all week but goes out on Saturday and has five beers. Statistically speaking, Joe is in a lower risk category than Mary. But there’s little doubt that Mary’s drinking pattern is safer than Joe’s.

Let's be clear: We don’t need to drink alcohol to keep our hearts healthy.

There’s also the sobering fact that alcohol can be addictive. The more often you drink, the more susceptible you are to its habit-forming nature. Having a drink increases your desire to have another and at the same time impairs your ability to judge whether or not that’s a good idea. One drink a day can quickly lead to two or three or, before you know it, five. Because it is so widely consumed and accepted in our society, excessive drinking can seem quite normal.

If you frequently have more than three drinks in a day or more than ten drinks in a week, or you repeatedly try but fail to change your drinking patterns, it’s a sign that your drinking may be out of control. Even if you feel that your drinking is not a problem, taking a 30-day break from all drinking can be a very helpful way to reset your habits and reassess the impact of alcohol on your life, health, relationships, wallet, and waistline. (And the more unthinkable that is, the more you might want to seriously consider doing it.) Some people discover that they actually enjoy life more without the "benefits" of alcohol. Others simply find that it’s much easier not to drink at all than to drink just a little.

The Bottom Line on Alcohol and Longevity

Risk and moderation are both subjective and relative. Whether we’re talking about alcohol or red meat or roller coasters, each of us is likely to assess the benefits and the risks differently. For many people, alcoholic beverages can fit into a healthy lifestyle. But I think it’s time to stop promoting the questionable health benefits of alcohol and start being more honest about its costs. 

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? I'd love to hear from you. Post your comments below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page. Image of liquor bottles © Shutterstock

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