Wine isn’t a health food after all

I’m not sure who started suggesting that moderate amounts of alcohol are good for your health; it’s certainly a long-held – and awfully convenient – belief, based on some observational studies.

The UK recently published its new alcohol guidelines and after reviewing evidence accumulated over the 21 years since its previous guidelines, it concludes that any level of alcohol increases cancer risk.

What about the heart health benefits we were promised? Well, that turned out to be relevant only in women aged 55 and over, and only when they limited their drinking to 2 glasses of wine a week.

Bottom line: there is no justification to drinking alcohol to your health, since even in the small subgroup of 55-and-over-women the advantages to the coronaries are outweighed by the negative effects to other parts of the body.

Risks and benefits

We sometimes have a naïve attitude towards risk, and will be reassured only when it’s absolutely zero. In reality, most of the actions we take carry potential risks and potential benefits. Although alcohol has – we have come to realize – very little if any health benefits, it does have many other really important benefits. Wine is one of the most civilized of pleasures, and the joy of drinking in company, with good food, shouldn’t be trivialized. I rarely regret having a good time.

That’s why the UK guidelines suggest an upper limit that they consider an acceptable low risk level of drinking. Just like other risky behaviors, such as driving a car, no one suggests you stay at home – we do drive, but buckle our seatbelt, comply with speed limit and stay alert.

Their advice – for men and women – is to drink no more than 14 units a week. Translated: 14 units are a bottle and a half of wine a week, or 7 cans of regular beer a week. They also suggest not save up for a night of binge drinking, but rather to try and spread this allotment over three or more days.

The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ advice is not much different.

“If alcohol is consumed, it should be in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men—and only by adults of legal drinking age. For those who choose to drink, moderate alcohol consumption can be incorporated into the calorie limits of most healthy eating patterns. The Dietary Guidelines does not recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason.”

The guidelines specifically warn against the combination of high-caffeine drinks (such as in energy drinks) and alcohol:

“Mixing alcohol and caffeine is not generally recognized as safe by the FDA. People who mix alcohol and caffeine may drink more alcohol and become more intoxicated than they realize, increasing the risk of alcohol-related adverse events. Caffeine does not change blood alcohol content levels, and thus, does not reduce the risk of harms associated with drinking alcohol.”

Who needs these guidelines?

Guidelines are just so: a suggestion, take it or leave it, but in the case if those issued by governments, they are based on a huge body of evidence, analyzed by – usually unbiased – experts in the field. Yes, politics may get in the way of the final recommendations, and that’s unfortunate, but the advisory committee’s report advising these guidelines really provides the most up-to-date, comprehensive, carefully examined data possible, and I know of no better source for evidence-based, non-anecdotal nutrition information.

I wouldn’t panic from the knowledge that alcohol is a carcinogen, because the dose does matter; a lot.

But clarifying that less is better when it comes to alcohol is a good idea. Alcohol – to our disappointment – isn’t a health food. It has risks, and many calories. It’s also a wonderful, deeply cultural food that can be enjoyed without over excessive risk. But if you regularly drink to unwind and can achieve the same result with a cup of tea, the UK ministry of health encourages a swap.

Nutrition isn’t as simple as good foods and bad ones, miracles or poisons, but then, what in real life is?

Dr. Ayala

Further reading:

Easy to digest info about excessive alcohol use from the CDC here.

And another perspective on the topic from my archives here.

Nutrition isn’t as simple as good foods and bad ones, miracles or poisons, but then, what in real life is?