Are Moderate Drinkers Really Healthier Than Non-Drinkers?

Can alcohol be the secret to vitality?

December 30, 2015
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‘Tis the season to drink and be merry, as they say, with parties (for toasting) all month long. As with many nutrition topics, though, each new report on alcohol seems to contradict the last. So which is it: Does alcohol offer health benefits, or is that just wishful thinking?

Most folks who cite alcohol’s benefits are talking about moderate consumption, which is pretty widely accepted to mean no more than two drinks per day for the average guy and one for the average gal. And no, they don’t roll over if you don’t use them (so skipping Friday and drinking double on Saturday doesn’t work). “One drink” is also fairly well defined: twelve ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or one and a half ounces of spirits.

So. Drinking in moderation (one or two drinks per day, depending): Is it really healthy? Let’s find out!

THE PROS

Over 100 studies associate moderate drinking with a 25-40 percent decreased risk of various cardiovascular incidents. This is generally attributed to alcohol’s tendency to improve HDL (“healthy”) cholesterol and perhaps more importantly, prevent blood clotting. Red wine in particular has gotten a reputation for being heart healthy, in part because of its high antioxidant content.

You might think to yourself: that’s it? Where are all of the other benefits? Considering that heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States, though, I’d say it’s a pretty big deal if something as easy as drinking a little red wine can lower your risk.

THE CONS

Although a lot of concern surrounding alcohol consumption focuses on “heavy” drinking (more than one or two drinks per day over the course of a week)–a behavior the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports claims 88,000 lives each year–even moderate alcohol consumption is considered too great a risk for certain populations, including women who are pregnant or may become pregnant.

That same CDC report goes on to list both the short- and long-term health risks of alcohol consumption, ranging from injuries (including motor vehicle crashes and drownings), violence (including sexual assault and intimate partner violence), alcohol poisoning, and miscarriage. Over time, alcohol consumption contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, digestive issues, certain cancers, dementia, depression, and anxiety. Risk of death and certain types of cancer increase even with very minimal consumption.

In fact, we now understand that an individual’s ability to benefit from moderate drinking largely depends on genetics, with a paltry 15 percent of the population possessing the gene associated with alcohol’s favorable effect on heart health. The other 85 percent of us? Maybe not so much.

Across the board, experts advise non-drinkers to continue abstaining; that is, drinking’s potential benefits compared to its risks do not make it worthwhile for individuals to start drinking if they don’t already.

One study of 53,000 people further supports abstinence from alcohol based on its findings that there is no significant benefit to drinking moderately. The researchers explained that previous research defined “non-drinkers” as ranging from anyone who has never touched a drop to recovering alcoholics and heavy drinkers who simply no longer drink. The latter group (former drinkers) tend to have poorer health, thus skewing the non-drinking group and making them appear less healthy than moderate drinkers.

Oh, and it’s also a total killjoy for weight loss and getting that rockin’ bod you resolved to get in 2016. Sorry.

THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?

Some individuals do benefit from moderate alcohol consumption; it’s just not that easy to tell if you’re one of them. Talking to your doctor is a good start, especially if you’ve reached middle age or have a personal or family history of heart disease.

But honestly? Drinking, even moderately, is probably a flop for most individuals. That being said, I don’t know many people who currently drink who would stop cold turkey because some millennial dietitian advised it.

If you are going to drink, be honest with yourself about what moderation really means, and pay attention to high-calorie, nutrient-poor mixers and snack foods consumed along with the alcohol. “One drink” is not a glass as full as most restaurants serve or a cocktail made with multiple shots. Also, remember that no matter how long it’s been since your last drink, the recommendation to limit consumption to one or two drinks on any given day still stands.

The real bottom line is this: Your body is probably better off ringing in 2016 without the bubbly, but one glass on a truly special occasion can fit into a healthy lifestyle.

…Unless you’re pregnant.

Or a recovering alcoholic.

Or struggling with other dependency issues.

Or planning to drive.

Or taking certain prescription medications.

Or…oh, you get the idea.

Cheers!

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