While moderate amounts of alcohol can certainly fit into a healthful diet (for most people), it appears alcohol might not be healthful in and of itself.
So you enjoy a glass of wine, a pint of craft beer or a dry martini (shaken not stirred) every so often — or maybe quite often. How can you tell if you’re helping or harming your health? If you’re confused about whether imbibing a bit is good for you or not, you’re not alone.
For years, many research studies suggested that moderate amounts of alcohol have some health benefits, particularly for the heart and arteries (cardiovascular health). Consumption of red wine has frequently been offered up as the explanation for the “French Paradox” (i.e., that the French enjoy cheese and other rich foods often, yet aren’t dropping dead of heart attacks en masse).
While moderate amounts of alcohol can certainly fit into a healthful diet (for most people), it appears alcohol might not be healthful in and of itself. Here’s the problem: Research has observed there is an association between moderate drinking and better health, but just because two things happen together doesn’t mean that one causes the other. Association is not causation.
Ironically, a 2010 study of 149,773 French adults challenged the notion of lifting a glass for the health of your heart, concluding it’s not moderate consumption of alcohol that lowers the risk of heart disease. It turns out that moderate drinkers also share other characteristics that really deserve the healthful credit: better general health, more exercise, less depression and higher social status than never drinkers or heavy drinkers.
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A 2015 meta-analysis (a study of previous studies) concluded that when it comes to risk of death from all causes, moderate drinkers have no advantage over lifelong abstainers or occasional drinkers.
Moderate alcohol consumption, red wine in particular, is part of the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is based on whole or minimally processed plant foods — vegetables, fruit, beans and lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds, olives and olive oil. The healthfulness of this eating style has been supported by massive amounts of research, but red wine is only one small part of it. Mediterranean-diet experts agree that it’s the abundant vegetables that matter most.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, drinking moderately means up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. One drink is 12 ounces of beer (if it’s 5 percent alcohol by volume), 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.
If you choose to drink, there are good reasons to respect those limits. Alcohol has a lot of calories. It interferes with quality sleep and erodes your willpower. Not only is alcohol a toxin your liver has to deal with, it’s also a known carcinogen, and even moderate intake may increase the risk of breast cancer.
And then there’s the simple fact that overindulging in alcohol can be a safety issue.
Just about every study that claims benefits from moderate alcohol intake also cautions, “If you don’t already drink, don’t start.”
Yes, red wine has antioxidants and phytonutrients, but so do vegetables. Yes, a drink may help you unwind and relieve stress, but so does going for a walk, meditating or listening to music.
The bottom line is that there’s not one single health benefit you can get from wine or any form of alcohol that you can’t get from eating, drinking or doing something else that has proven health benefits. So, enjoy that glass of wine (or beer or martini), but just know it’s about pleasure rather than health.