Health myths dispelled

So you like a drink, but you also want to stay healthy. I expect that puts you in good company with millions of people across the country.

But are these two notions contradictory? If you follow some of the media coverage on the subject of alcohol consumption you might think alcohol and health are mutually exclusive. Certainly some take the view that because heavy drinking is seriously bad for your health, moderate drinking must be moderately bad for your health. Thankfully, for those of us who like to drink sensibly, that simplistic extrapolation is erroneous.

In my recently published book, Guilt-Free Drinking, I examine the epidemiological research, with a clear focus on moderate drinkers rather than the heavy or binge-drinkers that grab most of the headlines. There is little doubt that heavy drinking is bad for health, but most people do not fall into that camp. For the majority in control of their drinking, the alcohol story is really quite encouraging.

Of course, alcohol’s impact on health varies not just according to the quantity consumed but also depends on which aspect of health is being considered. The breadth of research into the effects of alcohol on health is quite staggering. Yet there is one measure of the benefits and risks of drinking that encapsulates the whole issue – does drinking help extend life or shorten it? Study after study shows that moderate drinkers live longer than abstainers and heavy drinkers.

When depicted graphically, this is often termed a J-curve relationship because while abstainers fare worse than moderate drinkers, heavy drinkers have shorter lives than anyone else.

In all the debate about alcohol-related harm, it is worth stepping back and contemplating what the science actually shows. Surely it is not too nuanced an argument to say that heavy drinking is bad, but moderate drinking is not – in fact it probably does most people some good.

Much of the benefit of alcohol consumption relates to a reduction in cardio­vascular disease. All alcoholic drinks appear to increase good cholesterol and reduce the likelihood of blood clots forming, meaning arteries remain cleaner and are less prone to blockage. This should reduce heart attacks and ischemic strokes. But research is showing benefits in other areas too, such as Type 2 diabetes, dementia and osteoporosis.

Although all alcohol in moderation seems to be beneficial, the perfect cocktail appears to be alcohol and polyphenols. These are natural antioxidants that are found in various foods. Importantly for drinkers, they are present to a varying extent in wine, beer and cider, although the highest concentrations tend to be found in red wines where the grapes have undergone a lengthy maceration.

These antioxidants provide further protection against the build-up of fatty deposits in arterial walls and may well provide protection against some form of cancer. Back in 1997, a red wine polyphenol called resveratrol was declared a cancer chemo­preventive – a substance that prevents, inhibits or delays the development of cancer.

This led to further research into the abundance of other polyphenols found in red wine. Research is ongoing and although results vary, it may well represent an additional health benefit over and above the moderate consumption of alcohol alone.

You may be feeling encouraged that moderate drinking is healthy as well as pleasurable, but we have to pose the question: what is moderate? There are those who criticise government drinking guidelines as arbitrary – just look around the world and it is clear safe drinking limits vary considerably. The Italian guidelines are double those in Sweden, for example, with the UK falling somewhere between the two. Yet I think that criticism is a little unfair. We humans are so complicated and diverse that it is impossible for governments to arrive at precise guidelines. That doesn’t mean we cannot estimate the range of alcohol consumption that is safe or beneficial, it just means guidelines should not be set in stone.

Another factor to consider is that most people, when asked, under-report how much they drink. In general, people only own up to about half of what they drink. Surprisingly, recall is no better when remembering how much they spend on alcohol. That may sound worrying, but it actually has some interesting ramifications. Almost all alcohol research underlying drinking guidelines relies on self-reporting of alcohol, so the level at which harm may start is probably much higher than that reported.

Consequently, if you know reasonably accurately how much you drink, you can allow yourself quite a lot of leeway above the drinking guidelines without needing to worry. Of course, if you are one of the under-reporters, you probably better stick with the guidelines as they stand.

Scientific research is quite reassuring for the genuine moderate drinker. People can have the confidence to drink sensibly without worrying they may be damaging their health. The harm of heavy drinking cannot, and should not, be ignored, but it is not accurate to assume that all drinking is harmful.

There are those who want everyone to reduce their alcohol intake, not just drinkers who are abusing alcohol. There are various objections to the “reduce everyone’s alcohol consumption” approach. Is it fair? Is it just another case of the nanny-state? There is another argument to be made – those drinking in moderation are probably improving their health and longevity. To ask someone to reduce a habit that is doing them good is effectively to do them harm, which cannot be an acceptable approach.

Guilt-Free Drinking by Robert Beardsmore is available at and for order from most bookshops (rrp £11.99). ISBN 978-0-9566768-0-1.