While excessive and binge drinking is best avoided, moderate drinking (no more than 5 units per week) can have some benefits for heart health for certain individuals. However, sorting out fact from wishful thinking isn’t easy. We look at the facts and fiction surrounding alcohol consumption.
Facts and fallacies
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? Some research has suggested that ‘moderate’ drinking (no more than 5 units per week) does seem to 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 in the first place. The impact of alcohol consumption on cardiovascular disease should be evaluated within the context of other effects of alcohol on health. For example, alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of cancer including breast cancer, even at very low levels.
A large new global study published in the Lancet has confirmed the findings of previous research and confirms the findings of previous research and confirms that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.
To avoid risk to your health the Government currently recommends that if you do drink most weeks:
- Both men and women limit their consumption to no more than 14 units a week.
- If you do drink as much as 14 units a week, spread your drinking over three days or more, whilst enjoying some alcohol-free days during the week.
That said, it is true that wine – particularly red wine – does contain several antioxidants, such as quercetin and resveratrol, which some believe may play a part in helping to prevent heart disease. However, there are many other, more health-promoting foods and drinks which are a rich source of these beneficial phyto-nutrients.
Beware of binge drinking
According to Alcohol Concern, 24% of adults in England regularly drink more than the recommended guidelines. So as well as disrupting sleep, clouding your judgement and potentially interacting with prescribed medication, high levels of alcohol consumption can impact nutrition by inhibiting 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, even if you are not in a high-risk group. For women in their twenties, drinking heavily can contribute to osteoporosis later on.
Binge drinking is especially harmful and can damage the brain. Regular heavy drinking is associated with a wide range of other health problems from liver disease to loss of libido, menstrual problems, nerve and muscle damage, and psychiatric problems, including clinical depression, as well as increased risk of accidents.
Alcohol 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. Keeping to low-risk guidelines is without doubt the most sensible approach, or better still, avoid alcohol altogether – which is the case if you are pregnant, trying to conceive, or have a pre-existing health condition or are taking medication which may be adversely affected by alcohol.
How many units are you really drinking?
Use this guide to see how many units of alcohol are in a small 125ml glass of wine.
Be aware that when you order a glass of wine in a bar or restaurant you will often be served a measure 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
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This article was last reviewed on 1st December 2018 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 Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (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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