Is There Really No Safe Amount of Drinking?
Jan. 19, 2023 Time
That’s a marked change from Canada’s previous national guidance on alcohol consumption, which advised women to have no more than 10 drinks per week and men no more than 15. By contrast, the new report says those who drink only one or two boozy beverages per week “will likely avoid” alcohol-related health consequences including chronic diseases, liver injury, and accidents—but the safest choice, it says, is not to drink at all.
To researchers who study alcohol, that recommendation isn’t surprising. The new report reflects a long-brewing shift in the way scientists and health-care providers think about the risks and benefits of alcohol, and follows a similar statement from the World Health Organization (WHO) released Jan. 4.
For “the past 20-plus years the evidence has been building and building that alcohol is not good for your health,” says John Callaci, a researcher with Loyola University Chicago’s Alcohol Research Program.
If you grew up believing that a glass of red wine per night is good for your heart, you’re not alone. Decades ago, lots of studies suggested that light to moderate drinking—often defined as no more than a drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men—is beneficial for cardiovascular health. That finding stuck, both among the public and policymakers.
But Callaci says more recent research has called those older studies’ findings into question. Some researchers didn’t adequately account for underlying differences between non-drinkers (some of whom abstain because they have health problems) and light drinkers (who might have healthier lifestyles overall). So while it looked like light drinkers were healthier than non-drinkers, the booze may not have been the reason.
While some modern studies have found benefits associated with small amounts of alcohol, there’s been a shift in scientific consensus over the past couple decades. Researchers reexamined some previously published data on alcohol use, this time accounting for the “abstainer bias”—the idea that some people don’t drink because they have health or prior substance-abuse issues—and found little to no benefit associated with light drinking.
In 2022, the World Heart Federation released a policy brief debunking the notion that alcohol is heart-healthy. “Contrary to popular opinion, alcohol is not good for the heart,” the report says, noting that some studies that show cardiovascular benefits from drinking are flawed and more recent research points to a host of chronic conditions linked to alcohol. In the past year alone, studies have found that alcohol consumption may accelerate genetic aging, shrink the brain, and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Alcohol is also considered a known human carcinogen and has been linked to a variety of cancers, including those of the breast, liver, colon, throat, mouth, and esophagus.