How much alcohol can you safely drink? And do the benefits of alcohol outweigh the risks?
The bad news
Most experts agree that drinking excessively increases the risk of liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis, cognitive problems and cancers of the mouth, throat, breast and oesophagus.
The good news
Many scientists also believe drinking in moderation can help keep us healthy.
According to a recent paper published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, an analysis of more than one million adults found that drinking small amounts of alcohol each day was linked to a 18 per cent reduction in mortality.
Meanwhile, several studies have found that adults who drink in moderation are less likely than teetotallers to develop type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance (a precursor to type 2 diabetes), and metabolic syndrome.
Plus, some studies have even shown that adults who consume small amounts of alcohol every day have less fat around their waistline – suggesting that the classic beer belly is something of a myth.
It’s our hearts that love the occasional tipple the most, with the majority of studies showing that moderate drinking reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by 30-35 per cent. Alcohol in moderation seems to boost levels of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol, which reduces the stickiness of blood, helping to prevent the blood clots that can cause heart attacks or strokes.
But the key word is ‘moderation’. To reap the health benefits, limit alcohol to just one or two units a day.
And when it comes to protecting against heart disease, the health benefits only kick in for men over the age of 40 and postmenopausal women.
Think before you drink
The Department of Health recommends that men should have no more than three to four units of alcohol a day, and women no more than two to three units daily, and one drink alone may provide all your recommended daily alcohol intake.
Unfortunately, labelling cans or bottles of alcoholic drinks with the number of units they contain isn’t compulsory. However, many products now label units to help you tot up your intake. And discussions are planned for 2008 to consider making information about sensible drinking on alcohol containers a legal requirement.
Drinking and driving
There’s no fail-safe guide as to how much you can drink to stay within the legal limit, so the only safe solution is to avoid drinking altogether if you are planning to drive.
Meanwhile, pregnant women should also refrain from drinking alcohol, or at least limit their intake, although current advice from healthcare bodies is contradictory.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence suggests that pregnant women can drink up to 1.5 units of alcohol a day without harming their unborn baby, but you might feel safer following the Department of Health’s recommendation that pregnant women should avoid alcohol altogether.
What’s the best tipple?
Red wine is often given the ‘health halo’, mainly because it’s packed with antioxidants such as flavonoids that studies have suggested may protect against heart disease.
But most health experts now agree that it doesn’t matter what you drink – it’s regular small doses of alcohol itself, rather than specific wines, beers or spirits, that can boost health.
When you drink may also be important. Some studies show that drinking alcohol before or with a meal is best for a healthy heart.
As for how often you should drink? Well, most studies suggest that, like exercise, a tipple protects the heart most when it’s done every day and in moderation.