So are all those so-called health benefits of alcohol BS? Experts break down the sobering findings.

By Macaela Mackenzie
August 28, 2018
Photo: Olha Tsiplyar / Shutterstock

Remember those studies that found red wine was actually good for you? Turns out the research was as too-good-to-be-true as it sounded (a three-year investigation concluded that the research was BS-damn). Still, most health experts have maintained that up to one drink a day is a-okay for your health, and might even have health-protective effects. But a new study delivered a sobering finding, stating that no amount of alcohol is good for you. What gives?

The study, published this month in The Lancet, examined drinking on a global level, exploring how boozing around the world contributes to specific diseases-think cancer, heart disease, tuberculosis, diabetes-as well as overall risk of death. The amount of data researchers looked at was massive-they reviewed over 600 studies on how drinking impacts health.

You may not want to toast to their findings. According to the report, alcohol was one of the top 10 risk factors for premature death in 2016, accounting for just over 2 percent of all reported deaths among women that year. On top of that, they also found that any so-called health benefits of alcohol are BS. "Their conclusion is essentially that the safest amount of alcohol is none," says Aaron White, Ph.D., a senior scientific advisor at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), who was not involved with the study.

The thing is, experts are divided on how the findings should be interpreted, and most agree that the final word on alcohol isn't so black and white. Here's what experts want you to know about the research and what it means for your happy hour plans.

The Case for Alcohol

"The strongest evidence for the health benefits of alcohol are in reducing the risk of heart attack," says White. There's a convincing body of research that's found moderate drinking-aka one drink per day for women-might be good for your cardiovascular health, reducing your risk of heart disease and stroke. (Read more: The Definitive *Truth* About Wine and Its Health Benefits)

Before you pop the bubbly, the experts stress this research isn't exactly a reason to *start* drinking if you don't already. "If you're already living a healthy lifestyle, there's no need to add alcohol to benefit your heart," White explains. "I would never recommend that somebody start drinking for their health."

However, based on the research that's currently out there, up to one drink a day is most likely safe and might even be a little beneficial for your heart.

The Case for Going Dry

At the same time, research also shows there's a tradeoff. "Even if alcohol might have some heart health benefits, there's evidence that, especially for women, alcohol can increase your risk of cancers," says White. According to research published by the American Institute of Cancer Research, one small drink a day can up your risk of breast cancer by up to 9 percent.

And there's no getting around the fact that drinking at higher levels can tank your health. Binge drinking-that means four drinks or more during your night out-is associated with all kinds of health risks, which is not up for debate, according to the experts. "We've always known that alcohol can kill you," says White. Regularly binge drinking will put your risk of cancer and all kinds of other health problems "through the roof," he says. (Related: What Young Women Need to Know About Alcoholism)

The Debate

The challenge for NIAAA and other health organizations lies in "figuring out where the threshold is between alcohol being dangerous and being neutral or even potentially beneficial," explains White. The new study doesn't mean that your happy hour beer is going to kill you, he stresses. "It just means that there might not be a level at which alcohol is protective."

Adding to the confusion is that the findings of the new study might be a little misleading. "The new paper looks at studies worldwide, which is not necessarily indicative of the risk in the U.S., as the burden of disease is quite different here than India, for example," explains Julie Devinsky, M.S., R.D., a nutritionist at Mount Sinai Hospital. The study also looks at entire populations-not individual habits and health risks, adds White. Together, that means one thing: The results are more of a generalization than a personal health recommendation.

The Bottom Line on Booze

While the recent study was impressive and the results worth paying attention to, ultimately, this is just one study among many on the health effects of alcohol, says White. "It's a complicated topic," he says. "There's no need to panic here if you're drinking moderately, but it's important to pay attention to the new science as it comes out."

Currently, NIAAA (along with the official U.S. Dietary Guidelines) recommend up to one drink per day for women. If you're intentional about being healthy-crushing your workout calendar, eating a healthy diet, and staying on top of any genetic risks by getting the appropriate screenings-a nightly glass of pinot noir is "statistically very unlikely" to screw up your health game, says White.

Still, "it's important to understand that one drink per day is not the same as having seven drinks on Friday night," says Michael Roizen, M.D., chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic. That falls into binge territory, which, as we've established, is a no-go, no matter which study you look at. (Related: Shaun T Gave Up Alcohol and Is More Focused Than Ever)

White notes that the NIAAA is evaluating its alcohol recommendation as new data comes in. "We're reevaluating whether moderate consumption is really safe, or whether even at low levels of drinking, the potential harm outweighs the benefits or even lack of effect," he explains.

Before you pour yourself a class, Dr. Roizen advises considering your individual risk by asking yourself three questions. "First, are you at risk of alcohol or drug abuse based on family history? If the answer is yes, then it's zero on the alcohol," he says. If the answer is no, next consider your risk of cancer. "If you are at a high risk of cancer, meaning you have female relatives that have had cancer, especially at a younger age, then the answer is that alcohol is probably not going to have any benefits for you," he says. But if your personal and family history is free of alcohol abuse and cancer, "go ahead and enjoy up to one drink per night," says Dr. Roizen.

White recommends talking to your doctor about it-after all, getting a personalized recommendation from your doc is always better than trying to decipher global data. "The bottom line is that you don't need alcohol to live a long and healthy life," he says. "The current question is, 'Is it still safe or even relatively beneficial to have small amounts of alcohol every day?' We just don't know that yet."


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