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December 24, 2019

A health guide to drinking alcohol at the holidays

Research varies on the health implications of alcohol

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Holiday drinking

What's a healthy amount of alcohol to drink? Medical opinions vary.

Alcohol consumption is very much a holiday tradition. Whether at parties, business events, or when entertaining at home, there is the expectation that some form of alcoholic beverage will be served. Then there’s the social expectation that one will partake. Who hasn’t grabbed a glass of wine to carry around at a party? 

But for those conscious of their health, what is the current thinking when it comes to alcohol? I can remember reading studies suggesting that a glass of wine every night was good for you. Is this still the case? Are there some simple rules of thumb that a conscientious person can follow? Well, sort of.

For some context, it’s important to know that alcohol consumption in the U.S is rising, especially among women, minorities and older adults. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry examined how drinking patterns changed between 2002 and 2013. They found that overall drinking increased by 11 percent. Combined with more alarming increases in high-risk and problem drinking, the researchers said their findings suggest "a public health crisis," given the fact that high-risk drinking is linked to a number of diseases and psychiatric problems, as well as violence, crime and crashes. 

If that doesn’t cause you to think twice, some of the most contemporary research suggests that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. According to a 2018 article in Live Science, drinking alcohol in moderation is more harmful than previously thought, according to a comprehensive study that analyzed information from millions of people in nearly 200 countries. The authors acknowledge that the findings contrast with most health guidelines, which say that moderate drinking is safe.

In what seems to be the middle ground, the Mayo Clinic says that moderate alcohol use has possible health benefits, but it's not risk-free. The Mayo Clinic notes that the evidence for moderate alcohol use in healthy adults isn't certain. The conclusion is that any potential benefits of alcohol are relatively small and may not apply to all individuals. They suggest that the latest dietary guidelines make it clear that no one should begin drinking alcohol or drink more often on the basis of potential health benefits. For many people, the possible benefits don't outweigh the risks and avoiding alcohol is the best course. They concede if you are a light to moderate drinker and you are healthy, you can probably continue to drink alcohol as long as you do so responsibly.

So, if you’re a person who generally lives a healthy lifestyle and consumes alcohol in moderation, my quick takeaway is that you need not give up drinking altogether so long as you stay within reason. What’s reasonable? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's dietary guidelines recommend that if alcohol is consumed, it should be in moderation—up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. Other common questions addressed on the CDC’s website include:

What is a standard drink in the United States?

A standard drink is equal to 14.0 grams (0.6 ounces) of pure alcohol. Generally, this amount of pure alcohol is found in:

• 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content).

• 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content).

• 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content).

• 1.5 ounces or a “shot” of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey). 

Is beer or wine safer to drink than liquor?

No. One 12-ounce beer has about the same amount of alcohol as one 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5-ounce shot of liquor. It is the amount of alcohol consumed that affects a person most, not the type of alcoholic drink. 

So there you have it. Clearly, no one is encouraging anyone to start drinking for any health benefit, and the absolute means of preventing any alcohol-related problems, physically or mentally, is to avoid drinking altogether. However, what the experts seem to be saying is that the negative impacts of alcohol consumption can be somewhat mitigated if you live a healthy lifestyle and consume alcohol moderately. While it’s not your typical motivational message for inspiring healthy behavior, it’s a benefit that just might come in handy this time of year. A gift to yourself for all the hard work you’ve put in to stay fit. Happy Holidays!

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