Often when I do a nutrition talk or workshop, someone in the audience will joke with me and say “just tell me about the red wine and the chocolate!” They don’t want to know about the broccoli, the spinach or the beans. They just want to know about the foods they really love. The ones that bring real enjoyment to their day! Alcohol of any kind, however, has been called the Jekyll and Hyde of preventive medicine. If you drink a little, it can be good for you. If you drink a lot it can be bad for you. This is what you need to know:
How harmful is alcohol? A recent study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto shows that alcohol is now the third leading cause of disease and injury worldwide, despite the fact that many countries around the world abstain from drinking. Excess alcohol intake has been linked to more than 200 different diseases and injuries. In excess alcohol harms the liver, heart, pancreas and brain. It weakens your immune system, hinders healing and impairs bone formation. High intakes are linked to liver disease, high blood pressure, stroke, atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat that can lead to stroke), pancreatitis, cancer, depression, suicide and accidents. For those who suffer from alcoholism, alcohol destroys not only the life of the alcoholic, but the lives of family members as well.
The alcohol-cancer connection. Alcohol (ethanol) is classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is linked to seven different cancers, including cancers of the breast, colon, larynx (voice box), liver, esophagus, mouth and throat. The risk increases with the volume of alcohol consumed, especially at an intake of three or more drinks daily. Combining smoking with drinking greatly increases the risk. For some cancers, including cancer of the breast, mouth, throat and esophagus, even light drinking (up to one drink daily) can increase risk. That’s why organizations, such as the American Institute for Cancer Research, state that the best protection against cancer is to avoid alcohol entirely. This message is particularly important for those who have a family history of cancer, especially for breast and colon cancer.
The good news about alcohol. Alcohol consumed in moderate amounts has a long history of being good for the heart. The University of Calgary recently reviewed 63 studies to determine just how good it is. They concluded that alcohol in moderation impacts heart health positively in three ways. It significantly increases your HDL cholesterol – the good kind that carries cholesterol out of the bloodstream and back to the liver for disposal. It increases levels of a hormone called adiponectin – a hormone that reduces inflammation or damage to the cells that line blood vessel walls and promotes healthy blood sugar levels. Alcohol also decreases fibrinogen levels, which reduces the stickiness of your blood and therefore, the risk of a blood clot causing a heart attack or stroke. The moderate use of alcohol has also been linked to a lower risk of dementia, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
Is Red Wine Better? The term “French Paradox” was born in 1992 to describe the relatively low incidence of heart disease in the French population, despite a relatively high intake of unhealthy, saturated fat. Red wine, it was believed, was the reason why. What we know today is this. All types of alcohol, in moderation, can protect health. It is the ethanol or alcohol itself that provides protection. Red wine, however, appears to provide further protection due to its strong, health-protective mix of plant compounds called polyphenols. These compounds are potent antioxidants and promote proper health and function of the blood vessel wall. In The Zutphen Study involving over 1300 men, long-term wine consumption of, on average, less than half a glass per day was strongly linked to a lower risk of heart disease and a boost in life expectancy of five years.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Moderation is defined by most health organizations as no more than one drink daily for women and no more than two drinks for men. Some researchers, however, feel that just half a drink daily is the optimal level to minimize risk and still obtain a benefit. One drink is equal to any of the following: one 12-ounce beer, 4-ounce glass of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits. Your pattern of drinking or how you drink is very important. The healthiest way to consume alcohol is regularly, in small quantities and with meals. Drinking to intoxication and binge drinking is harmful to health, increases your risk of disease and cancels out the benefits gained by drinking in moderation. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks per occasion for women and five or more drinks for men.
Don’t forget your veggies. If you choose to drink, be sure your diet includes plenty of folate-rich foods. Some research has shown that a folate-rich diet may reduce the cancer risk linked to alcohol, especially for breast and colon cancer. Folate is found in high amounts in dark green and orange vegetables, as well as in beans and lentils.
Excess alcohol is harmful to health. It is linked to a higher risk of many diseases, including cancer. Alcohol in moderation is good for your heart. Red wine may provide better protection than other alcoholic beverages due to the antioxidant, plant compounds it contains. If you drink, women should consume no more than one drink daily and men no more than two.