Alcohol is not bad for you, but it depends on what and how much you drink

There is no doubt that people consume too much alcohol. The debate centers on whether low-level alcohol consumption is safe. It is well-established that the benefits and risks of alcohol are strongly affected by the type of drink and how it is consumed. Many studies do not consider these factors in making recommendations for safe alcohol consumption levels. Can you drink alcohol safely or even in a beneficial way?

The data seem to indicate “yes”. The death rate from any cause is lower when drinking alcohol over a week than when it is consumed only one day or two days. It is important to consider how alcohol is consumed because spikes in blood concentrations of alcohol are much higher when binge drinking. After a certain level of blood alcohol, the body produces harmful molecules known as free radicals. These can cause liver damage and increase the risk of cancer. Unfortunately, most alcohol studies only look at the total amount of alcohol consumed per week. They don’t differentiate between drinking patterns.

Alcohol consumption with food can also have a significant impact on health. Food slows down the emptying process of the stomach, which reduces blood alcohol levels. Alcohol consumed in conjunction with a Mediterranean Diet seems to have a lower cancer risk compared to other forms of alcohol consumption.

It is possible to explain this, at least partially, by the nutrients present in high amounts in the Mediterranean diet. These include folates, which reduce alcohol’s carcinogenic effect. The health effects of a food or nutrient are only evaluated in the context of a total diet. This understanding is often lost when drafting guidelines on alcohol consumption.

Moderate amounts of wine and the Mediterranean diet are a great match. Marian Weyo/Shutterstock

drinking small amounts of wine lowers the risk of early death more compared to not drinking alcohol or drinking other types of alcohol. A unit of wine consumed slowly with food results in lower levels of blood alcohol when compared to a unit taken in a single sip of spirit. The benefits of red wine, and wine in general, are not fully understood. It’s unclear whether they come from the more leisurely drinking style or wine’s antioxidants.

Wine as medicine

Some public health experts are of the opinion that alcohol should be classified as a drug of addiction to help prevent misuse. When consumed in moderation, however, alcohol can reduce cardiovascular disease and may even help with dementia. It may be better to treat alcohol like a drug.

It would seem odd to receive a prescription for a medication without being told that only a small number of tablets should be taken every day. Not all of them at once on Friday nights, as this would make a drug that is beneficial into one that is extremely harmful. Alcohol should also be treated with the same caution.

Overdosing on many nutrients, including saturated fats and vitamins, can cause harm. These limits are based on the body’s ability to metabolise a nutrient safely. The dosage makes the poison.

Alcohol is not for everyone. For example, pregnant women and those who produce high amounts of the cancerous substance Acetaldehyde as they digest alcohol, it’s best to avoid alcohol. It is right to condemn binge drinking as well. The current evidence shows that moderate drinking at mealtimes (preferably wine with a Mediterranean style meal) is more beneficial than the risks for those who drink. It is important to make a distinction between excessive drinking and drinking at mealtimes. This will help reduce confusion and give alcohol the appropriate place within a healthy lifestyle.

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