Just One Serving of Alcohol a Day Can Increase Your Breast Cancer Risk, Says New Report
But how seriously do you need to take the new recommendations?
It's easy to understand why people are often confused about the health risks associated with drinking. On one hand, certain types of alcohol have been touted for their potential health benefits, while other research links frequent drinking to health problems like a weakened immune system and brain damage (seriously). It's been known for a while that alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer (and other types of cancer, too), but it's still a less-discussed risk than other factors like physical activity level, weight, and smoking.
That may all be changing with a new report from the American Institute for Cancer Research, which analyzed all the most recent research on breast cancer and found that having just one small serving of alcohol per day can increase premenopausal risk by 5 percent and postmenopausal risk by 9 percent. The elevated risk starts at just 10 grams of alcohol a day, which is less than a standard glass of wine or beer. In other words: If your nightly routine is to hang out on the couch with a glass of wine, you could be upping your risk of breast cancer. What's more, the risk increases with every additional 10 grams, meaning if you usually have more than one serving a day, your risk is higher. Yikes.
"It's scary to learn that just one drink per day increases the risk for breast cancer, and honestly we don't talk about it as much as we should," says Amanda Bontempo, R.D., a board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition at the NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center. "Very little in health and nutrition is a black-and-white answer, but we should most definitely take this report seriously," she says.
Still, alcohol consumption is just one of several lifestyle factors that can alter your cancer risk. "It is critical to consider not just one component of your lifestyle, but all of it," Bontempo says. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and reducing alcohol consumption can all make cancer less likely. "These lifestyle measures can reduce risk by approximately 15 to 20 percent," says Sagar Sardesai, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in the division of medical oncology at Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. For what it's worth, the report also found that vigorous exercise reduces your risk, with the most active women evaluated at a 17 percent lower risk for premenopausal breast cancer compared to those who were least active.
Plus, it's important to note that the risk is associated with daily drinking. "If you occasionally have a glass of wine the risk is much lower, if at all," says Alice Bender, R.D.N., head of nutrition programs at the American Institute for Cancer Research.
To be clear, the current alcohol recommendations for overall cancer prevention are that it's best not to drink. But if you do, limit yourself to one standard drink or less per day. So really, if you're not drinking every day and not drinking large amounts at a time, you don't need to worry too much about these findings. However, "we want people who drink every day to understand that the risk starts at a small amount," Bender says.
But isn't red wine good for you?!?!?! "Resveratrol is a phytochemical found in red wine that lab studies link with anti-carcinogenic effects," says Bontempo. "But the overall body of research doesn't support considering red wine separately from other alcoholic beverages in relationship to cancer risk."
Dr. Sardesai agrees, noting that while it's true that some observational studies have shown an association between mild to moderate alcohol consumption and overall risk of death, "the same can't be said about breast cancer risk in women who consume more than three to five drinks per week." So yeah, when it comes to cancer risk, drinking alcohol probably isn't going to help you out.
If giving up alcohol altogether doesn't sound like something you really want to do (fair enough), here are some realistic ways to reduce your intake.
Replace it with new habits.
"If you're using alcohol for stress management, try other tools like mindfulness, meditation, or exercise," says Bontempo. "If you're using it to sleep better, try to create a bedtime ritual including lowering lights, imposing a cut-off time for electronics, and enjoying a warm chamomile tea."
Reduce the amount you're drinking in a sitting.
"If you have a daily glass of wine, make it smaller than what you would normally have," says Bender. "Instead of five ounces, have three." The same goes for any other drink. If you like having a cocktail at the end of the day, try using a 0.75 ounce serving of liquor instead of the standard 1.5 ounces.
Save it and savor it.
"Try to limit yourself to three drinks per week," says Bontempo. And sadly that doesn't mean you can save them all for Saturday night-they should be spread out in order to keep with the one drink per day recommendation. "If a woman chooses to imbibe, I recommend she save it for an occasion like a special dinner, a celebration, or an event and savor it and really enjoy it."