By Tara Mardigan, M.S., R.D., M.P.H.
Is that frosty mug of your favorite brew helping or harming you? Could your daily glass of wine at dinner actually be protective? It depends.
If you take a look at the scientific studies about the potential health effects of alcohol, you'll likely find your head spinning as if you just polished off an entire bottle of red wine. The data are inconclusive at best.
Defining alcohol's role in a balanced lifestyle is not clear-cut. To date, there have been no long-term randomized trials of alcohol consumption. What we know about alcohol stems from two sources — short-term trials looking at physical effects and observational studies comparing moderate drinkers with those who abstain.
What's more, both sources have their limitations. Most of the studies focus on intermediate measures rather than disease outcomes, so drawing complete conclusions may be inappropriate. Additionally, some of the health benefits and risks associated with alcohol consumption may be related to some other factor, not the actual intake of alcohol itself.
Where the science is limited, a shot of common sense can come in handy in determining if alcohol is appropriate for you.
A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80- to 100-proof distilled spirits. Experts say that when it comes to alcohol, a little goes a long way for the potential health effects. Once again, moderation appears to be the key. Sip past moderation and the effects of alcohol can quickly become negative.
So, what's moderation when it comes to alcohol? Most studies suggest that moderate drinking is up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Heavy drinking is considered anything above this amount and may include the common pattern of abstaining during the week and "binge" drinking on the weekends.
A culmination of research studies involving alcohol suggests that the potential beneficial properties of moderate drinking are not limited to wine alone. Whether you choose beer, wine or spirits, you'll reap the benefits from the form of alcohol known as ethanol.
What must be clearly distinguished is that the potential health benefits of drinking alcohol are associated with moderate drinking. In some cases, an increase past moderate drinking may actually reverse the benefits and lead to increased risks. Here's a look at some of the possible pros of moderate drinking and cons of heavy drinking.
Moderate drinking may:
Heavy drinking may lead to:
Moderate drinking appears to play a role in chronic disease prevention when the other elements of a balanced lifestyle are also present. These elements include a healthful diet, healthy weight, adequate physical activity, no smoking, ample stress reduction and rest. Moderate drinking is only one component of a balanced lifestyle. The choice is yours.
Tara Mardigan, M.S., R.D., M.P.H., is a nutritionist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from the University of New Hampshire. She completed her internship at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut and worked for three years as an inpatient dietitian at Massachusetts General Hospital before getting her master's degrees in nutrition and communication as well as public health at Tufts University.