While excessive and binge drinking should be avoided, moderate drinking (no more than five units per week) may have some benefits for heart health, at least for certain individuals. However, sorting fact from fiction isn't easy. We explore the truth behind alcohol consumption and its possible health benefits.
What is wine?
Wine is an alcoholic drink made from fermented grape juice. It's a beverage that has been enjoyed for thousands of years.
Are there benefits to drinking wine?
There's long been discussion about the risks and rewards that drinking wine has on your health. So, what's true and what's not?
It does appear that wine – particularly red – provides plant compounds that have antioxidant properties. These include quercetin and resveratrol, which some believe may play a part in helping prevent heart disease. However, there are many other health-promoting foods and drinks that are better choices.
Some research suggests that 'moderate' drinking (no more than five units per week) may offer some protection against heart disease, but primarily for men aged over 40 and post-menopausal women (and only when consumption is limited to five units a week – that's just two standard glasses of wine). There is little evidence that drinking wine or other alcohol will improve the health of younger people who are less at risk of heart disease. Furthermore, this impact on cardiovascular disease needs to be evaluated within the context of the other health effects of alcohol. For example, alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of cancer including breast cancer, even at very low levels.
Taking this into account, a large global study published in the Lancet in 2018 confirmed the findings of previous research that states there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.
How much alcohol can I drink safely?
The UK Government currently recommends that if you do choose to drink alcohol and you drink most weeks, you should limit your consumption to no more than 14 units a week. If this is a normal amount for you, spread your drinking over three days or more while enjoying some alcohol-free days during the week.
What is binge drinking?
This term refers to the consumption of a lot of alcohol over a short period of time. In the UK, it's classed as eight units of alcohol in a single session for men or six units for women.
What are the risks of binge drinking?
According to the Office for National Statistics, 24% of adults in England regularly drink more than the recommended guidelines. Regular heavy drinking is associated with a wide range of health problems, from liver disease and loss of libido, to menstrual problems, nerve and muscle damage and psychiatric problems such as clinical depression. Binge drinking is especially harmful and may damage your brain. For men and women in their 20s, drinking heavily may also contribute to osteoporosis later in life.
Alcohol consumption is thought to be responsible for about 3% of all UK cancer cases – people who drink three or more alcoholic drinks (equivalent to six units) a day are more likely to develop cancer of the mouth, larynx or oesophagus.
High levels of alcohol consumption may also impact your nutritional status by inhibiting the absorption of certain nutrients, including the B group of vitamins (most notably, folate and B12). This can make you more vulnerable to heart disorders, including high blood pressure and stroke, regardless of whether you are in a high-risk group.
Is a moderate intake of alcohol, including wine, safe for adults?
Alcohol disrupts sleep, clouds judgement and potentially interacts with prescribed medication, so keeping to low-risk guidelines is without doubt the most sensible approach. Or better still, avoid it altogether – this should be the case if you are pregnant, trying to conceive, have a pre-existing health condition or take medication that may be affected by alcohol.
For new mums, regularly drinking more than two units of alcohol daily while breastfeeding may affect a baby’s development. However, an occasional alcoholic drink is unlikely to do harm. Alcohol passes into breast milk and may affect its taste and smell, so avoid breastfeeding two to three hours after drinking alcohol or express milk before you partake in a glass of wine.
How many units am I really drinking?
It can be difficult to understand how many units you're drinking, but our handy guide will help you check. These figures are relevant for a small glass of wine (125ml). Don’t forget that when you order a glass of wine in a bar or restaurant, you will often be served a measure much larger than 125ml.
• 9% alcohol by volume (abv) = 1 unit
• 10% abv = 1.25 units
• 11% abv = 1.375 units
• 12% abv = 1.5 units
• 13% abv = 1.625 units
• 14% abv = 1.75 units
If you or someone you know may have a problem with their alcohol consumption, speak to your GP and check out the NHS website for more help with alcohol support.
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This article was last reviewed on 28 February 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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