The latest word on alcohol and health
Both the World Heart Federation and the World Health Organization recently issued new statements on alcohol consumption. And here’s the really bad news – they both concluded that no amount is safe for your overall health.
The new guidelines are based on a 2018 study published in The Lancet that found avoiding ALL alcohol (in any amount) to be safest after analyzing data in 195 countries from 1990 to 2016.
As a physician who respects science and common sense, it would be hard for me to disagree with the WHF or WHO. After all, there is copious data demonstrating that alcohol is not benign. That’s even more true for people with a personal or family history of alcohol addiction. This is why I’ve consistently advised my patients to avoid exceeding the defined “moderate” amount of alcohol consumption, and NEVER to start drinking in the hopes of attaining better heart health.
Admittedly, this has been a confusing subject. Some studies have shown heart benefits from drinking wine. And some scientists maintain their stance on these benefits. The new guidance doesn’t necessarily refute that. In fact, it again shows reduction in ischemic heart disease risk associated with modest alcohol consumption. However, it also makes it clear that those benefits are outweighed by potential negative consequences: The more you drink, the more you increase your risk of various forms of cancer (as well as accidental injury, atrial fibrillation and liver disease).
The good news is that you can reduce your risk of ischemic heart disease in other ways, and without the risk! The major heart health benefit of wine is believed to come from polyphenols. These powerful antioxidants give red wine its color. In general, the darker the red wine, the more polyphenols -- and the greater the benefit. But polyphenols and antioxidants can come from many other sources. Chocolate is a great source of polyphenols – and just like with wine, the darker the better. Chocolate made from at least 70% cacao is especially rich in these antioxidants. Step One Foods’ Chocolate Crunch, Chocolate Walnut, and Peanut Butter bars are made exclusively with 72% cacao dark chocolate for just this reason. And the antioxidant levels in our Strawberry Banana Smoothie are off the charts because we've included so much fruit in the mix.
So what should you do if you look forward to that daily glass of wine, a habit you had been led to believe was good for you? First, don’t worry TOO much. The risks of alcohol use increase with the amount you drink, so drinking a little bit is much better than drinking a lot. Second, the same thinking means that the more you reduce your drinking, the better off you’ll be. Finally, remember that there’s more to health than how much alcohol you consume. The totality of our nutritional intake determines overall health risk. Habitually eating steak is still a bad idea even if a single drop of alcohol never ever crosses your lips.
And what am I going to do in the face of this report? I would be lying if I said that I will never drink again. I do truly enjoy red wine. But instead of the 5 ounces I was sticking to before, I’m going to cut back to 3. And maybe I won’t have those 3 ounces every single evening. I might also opt for a mocktail before dinner when dining out so I’m not doubling down on alcohol consumption. And I’m going to keep trying my best to eat well in general. And to keep it all in perspective.
My best advice to my patients going forward will be to avoid alcohol intake altogether. But if they can’t achieve complete abstinence, I will advise them to at least do what I’ve done and reduce consumption over time.
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