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Alcohol – how much is healthy, really?

Many of us like to unwind with a glass of wine on a weeknight or a beer on the weekend. And raising a toast with a flute of champagne is all part of celebrating. As a nation, we have a pretty relaxed approach to drinking, but the tide is slowly turning as more and more people are putting down their glasses to tune into their health. Sales of low and no-alcohol drinks are also on the rise, with this previously ‘soft’ market experiencing a recent boom, thanks to the current ‘sober curious’ trend. Being the designated driver is no longer considered a bore since, these days, there are plenty of ways to celebrate without a sore head. If you want to enjoy the occasional tipple, we weigh up the risks and rewards to help you keep your alcohol intake in check.

Changing habits

Australia is still a country with a strong drinking culture, according to a 2021 international study. But there’s no doubt we’re drinking less alcohol than we used to. Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals alcohol consumption in Australia has reached its lowest point since the 1960s, having been on the decline since the mid 2000s. The number of people who abstain completely is also the rise, with at least two in 10 now non-drinkers, up from one in 10 in 2007.

So which demographic is driving this shift? Surprisingly, it’s largely teenagers and young people who are drinking significantly less alcohol, compared to their parents’ generation at the same age. This trend seems to have been reinforced by the coronavirus pandemic. While statistics confirm younger Australians continued to reduce their drinking during COVID, the flip side to this was that one in three parents increased their alcohol intake during COVID. In particular, alcohol consumption increased for women between the ages of 30 and 40, largely due to the impact the pandemic had on their child-caring responsibilities and stress levels.

A wine a day…

Whether it’s research that suggests red wine is an effective way to boost resveratrol and other antioxidants, or that beer has a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels, low-to-moderate drinking has been associated over the years with health benefits at best, and mixed messages at worst. More recently, a 2021 Monash University study suggests people consuming five to 10 alcoholic drinks a week enjoy a reduced risk of heart disease and death from all causes, compared to teetotallers. But before you open that bottle of red, it’s important to consider all the risks.

Risk vs reward

Studies that link drinking to health benefits are far from conclusive. A meta-analysis of 87 scientific studies actually found 74 of them to be flawed in their study design, which may contribute to the ‘alcohol can be good for you’ conclusion. The remaining 13 studies also didn’t demonstrate a health benefit with alcohol consumption. One reason to be cautious about these alcohol studies is that most are only observational.

Rather than determining a clear cause and effect, the most they demonstrate is an association between moderate drinking and a certain health outcome, when compared to non-drinkers. And moderate drinkers often have a higher socio-economic status than non-drinkers, which on its own is linked to better health. The comparison with non-drinkers might also not highlight that these people avoid alcohol because they have an underlying health problem.

What are the risks?

We also can’t ignore the evidence that drinking alcohol increases your risk of cancer. At least two very recent studies mark alcohol as a direct cause of at least seven different types of cancer, including liver, colon and breast cancer. This research means that, rather than the connection between alcohol and cancer simply being a link or an association that could potentially be explained by something else, such as diet or lifestyle, there is enough evidence to conclusively say alcohol does cause cancer. As a result, some experts are calling for a cancer warning to be included on alcohol packaging, just like the health warnings on cigarette packaging. Even light drinking might have a harmful effect on overall health. According to a recent UK study, which removed earlier biases between moderate drinking and health benefits, drinking alcohol bumps up the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular issues, even for people who kept their alcohol intake under the country’s official guidelines of
no more than 14 drinks a week.

Furthermore, a recent study conducted by Australia’s National Drug Research Institute revealed that approximately 6000 Australians die from alcohol-attributable diseases in any given year, and that a large proportion of alcohol-related cancer deaths are linked to low-or-moderate drinking levels.In other words, they’re ‘less healthy’ than many moderate drinkers to start with. The size of a standard glass of wine or beer varies from bar to restaurant — and particularly at parties! As a rule, one standard drink is equivalent to 100ml of wine, but most bartenders pour 150ml and often more.

Did you know?

Current guidelines suggest men & women shouldn’t drink more than 10 standard drinks a week & no more than four drinks on any one day.

The bottom line

Without sounding like the fun police, the risks of drinking still outweigh any potential benefits. Which is why, if you do enjoy a drink, try to stick to the National Health and Medical Research Council’s guidelines. So how much is too much? Following an extensive four-year review of the evidence, guidelines were updated in 2020 and recommend healthy men and women shouldn’t drink more than 10 standard drinks per week, and no more than four drinks on any day.

Date modified: September 19 2022
First published: Aug 2022

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