Of Course Booze Is Good For You – And Bad. Depends Upon The Amount

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We were recently treated to the claim that even one beer a day is injurious to health. Thus negation of all we thought we knew about booze was create y simply ignoring the health of anyone who doesn’t drink booze at all. A rather more balanced view is this, from The Conversation. It’s still more than a bit namby pamby but it’s better.

Is alcohol bad for you? It depends on the drink and how you drink it

Recent headlines claim that a glass of wine or a pint of beer a day shortens your life. It’s enough to dampen any thoughts of a celebratory drink or two at Christmas. But those conclusions are based on a partial view of the alcohol debate.

No one disputes the fact that many people drink too much alcohol. The controversy centres on whether even low levels of consumption are safe. There is now good evidence that the risks versus benefits of alcohol are strongly influenced by the type of alcohol and the way it is drunk. Yet many studies have not included these factors when making recommendations about safe levels of alcohol consumption. So can you drink alcohol in a way that is safe or even beneficial?

The data seems to say “yes”. When drinking is spread out over the week, death from any cause is lower than when the same amount of alcohol is drunk on only one or two days of the week. The way alcohol is consumed matters because spikes in blood alcohol concentrations are far higher from binge drinking. Above a certain blood alcohol concentration, the body breaks down alcohol in ways that produce harmful molecules called free radicals that can damage the liver and are associated with an increased risk of cancer. But, unfortunately, many alcohol studies are based on the overall amount consumed in a week – they don’t distinguish between different drinking patterns.

Drinking with a meal also has a big influence on the health effects of alcohol because food slows the emptying of the stomach, which lowers the blood alcohol concentration. And when alcohol is consumed as part of a Mediterranean diet, it seems to carry far less cancer risk than most other ways of consuming alcohol.

This can be explained, at least in part, by nutrients that are present at high levels in the Mediterranean diet, such as folates, which reduce the carcinogenic effects of alcohol. It is now widely accepted that the health effects of an individual food or nutrient can only be evaluated within the context of the overall diet. But that understanding is sometimes lost when drawing up guidelines for alcohol consumption.

The Mediterranean diet and moderate amounts of wine are a good match. Marian Weyo/Shutterstock

Drinking low amounts of wine is usually found to reduce the risk of an early death morethan not drinking or drinking other forms of alcohol. A unit of alcohol in wine drunk slowly with a meal results in lower blood alcohol concentrations than a unit of alcohol taken as a single swig of spirit on an empty stomach. It is not yet understood whether the benefits of drinking wine – and especially red wine – are due to this more leisurely way of drinking or to wine’s many antioxidants (substances believed to protect cells from damage).

Wine as medicine

Some public health experts strongly believe that to prevent harm from misuse, alcohol should be declared a drug of abuse. But, when taken in moderation, alcohol reduces cardiovascular disease, and possibly dementia. So it may be more appropriate to view alcohol as if it were a pharmaceutical drug.

It would be rather odd to be prescribed a course of medicine without it being made clear that only a few tablets should be taken each day – not all of them on a Friday night, which would turn a beneficial drug into an extremely harmful one. Similar precautions also need to be employed to benefit from alcohol.

Most nutrients, from saturated fats to many vitamins, have safe upper limits, and exceeding those limits can be harmful. These limits reflect the body’s capacity to safely metabolise the nutrient. The dose makes the poison.

Of course, some people, such as pregnant women and people who produce high levels of the cancer-causing substance acetaldehyde when they metabolise alcohol, should avoid alcohol altogether. Binge drinking is also rightly condemned as harmful. But the current evidence suggests that for those who choose to drink, the benefits from moderate meal-time drinking (wine with a Mediterranean-style meal, preferably) outweigh the risks. Making a clear distinction between binge drinking and moderate meal-time drinking can help clear up the confusion and allow alcohol its appropriate place in a healthy lifestyle.

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Matt Ryan
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Matt Ryan

Hm, if we are sensible about things, where’s the opportunity for an army of prodnoses to get involved (usually on the teat of the state)?

Rhoda Klapp
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Rhoda Klapp

Reading this after my rant about scares on the climate change story above I find it applies in this case too.

Shadeburst
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Shadeburst

This is a good example of scholarship rewritten for easier digestion by non-scientists. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time being the standout example. Even I could understand what Tim is saying. Well done.

This is also a good example of the Linear No-Threshold Hypothesis applied to other fields than radiation. Even before the nuclear scientists got involved, it was commonplace that the poison is in the dose. Numerous wives trying to poison their husbands have reported that the subjects actually thrived on mild quantities of strychnine and arsenic. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_no-threshold_model

bloke in spain
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bloke in spain

“And when alcohol is consumed as part of a Mediterranean diet,” Always a hoot, that one. The spread you see in the photo is what your average Mediterranean might sit down in front of in a rather better restaurant. He may pick at it while he’s waiting for the dish he’s ordered. A large plate of meat. if it’s at home, it’ll be the meat with possibly some greasy fried potatoes. No other vegetables at all. That’s here in Spain, much of Southern France & Greece. Italy they might throw in pasta & along the southern shores they’re quite keen… Read more »

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

Spot on. I’ve eaten at ‘proper’ Spanish restaurants (the ones where Spaniards eat) all over Spain, and the only vegetable dish I remember is judias verdes con jamon (jolly good, too).

Dodgy Geezer
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Dodgy Geezer

ALL public health statistics are now so perverted by activist politics that there is no point in citing what any report says. The levels of accuracy are similar to Daily Mail reports on the latest diet fads.

Read Retraction Watch for many examples…