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Is Drinking Alcohol Good For You?

Much is made of the health benefits of alcohol. But do the potential benefits outweigh the risks?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
December 23, 2009
Episode #074

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‘Tis the season to be jolly and with all the celebrations and festivities at this time of year, and, having already tackled holiday food consumption, it seems like the perfect time to talk about the benefits and risks of drinking alcohol.

What are the Health Benefits of Drinking Alcohol?

Whenever my friend orders a drink or a glass of wine, he always jokes that it’s “strictly for medicinal purposes” or “doctor’s orders.”  After all, moderate alcohol consumption appears to have a number of well-publicized health benefits.  Statistically, people who have a drink or so a day live a bit longer than teetotalers.

Why? Mostly because moderate alcohol consumption is good for your heart. It reduces your risk of heart disease and stroke—presumably by thinning the blood and reducing inflammation. Although the cardiovascular benefits account for most of the impact on longevity, a bit of alcohol also seems to reduce the risk of many other diseases.  (Click here for more details.)

It doesn’t matter what kind of alcohol you drink, either. Red wine may offer a little extra health boost in the form of polyphenols that are found in the skins of the grapes.  You can get these same compounds in nonalcoholic grape juice, by the way. But in terms of overall health and longevity, beer, wine, and spirits all have about the same benefits. 

In terms of overall health and longevity, beer, wine, and spirits all have about the same benefits.

Do People Who Drink Live Longer?

On average, people who drink moderately live a little longer and are a little healthier than those who don’t drink at all. But—and this is a big “but”— this modest benefit disappears pretty quickly as alcohol consumption goes up. 

Here’s a link to a graph that charts the relationship between alcohol consumption and mortality rates.   You can clearly see why this relationship is often described as a J-shaped curve. The mortality rates dip slightly as alcohol consumption increases from zero to one or two drinks a day, then rises sharply with every drink after that. 

Make no mistake about it: the damage caused by drinking too much is far, far greater than the benefits of drinking a little. And the amount of alcohol that’s considered healthy may be lower than you realize: one drink per day if you’re a woman and two a day if you’re a man.  Why do men get to drink more? Well, men are bigger on average, but it’s not just about body size. Women also metabolize alcohol differently and can tolerate less. Click here to learn how alcohol affects women differently than men.  If cutting down on the alcohol content of your food is important to you, check out this Quick Tip of mine.

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