One of the commonest questions I get asked as a nutritionist is “how much alcohol can I drink without damaging my health ? “, usually followed by ” isn’t red wine meant to be good for you ? “
The Department of Health recommendations for alcohol consumption in the UK are currently 14 units a week for both men and women. This equates to about 5 pints of medium strength beer or lager or 7 medium glasses of wine. These guidelines came into force in 2016 and replaced the previous, much more generous, limits of 21 and 28 a week for women and men. These changes were brought in as a result of a body of research indicating that mortality rates from cancer and other diseases increased at much lower levels of alcohol consumption than previously thought.
This downward trend in the recommendations for alcohol consumption is mirrored around the developed world, though there remains considerable variation between countries. Perhaps unsurprisingly countries like Spain and France having a more relaxed approach than the UK, while Australia and New Zealand have very similar guidelines, you can read more on this here.
The counter argument to this has been that quite a lot of good quality studies have shown moderate drinking, particularly red wine, had a protective effect on heart disease compared to non-drinkers. My father was passionate about red wine. After major heart surgery in his 50’s he was delighted when his GP recommended he drink a couple of glasses a night.
However research from China published in the Lancet last week pointed to even very light drinking can increase the risk of stroke by 10-15%, with moderate drinking of 4 drinks a day the risk increases to 35%. The the full report can be accessed here The study was huge, it looked at over 500,000 adults and followed them for 10 years, recording their alcohol consumption and monitored for cardio-vascular disease events. They concluded that the relationship between alcohol consumption and cardio-vascular disease was linear, it went up in line with increased alcohol consumption. This is in contrast with some earlier studies which were U-shaped, suggesting a protective effect at low levels of alcohol consumption.
Two areas of concern about taking this as the last word in the debate, first it was on Chinese adults, and second that it focused on beer and spirits, rather than wine. Never the less it has created waves in the scientific community with one leading figure Prof David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk, at the University of Cambridge stating “I have always been reasonably convinced that moderate alcohol consumption was protective for cardiovascular disease, but now I am having my doubts,”
My personal take on this is that if you enjoy a drink from time to time, and I certainly do, then don’t stop, though do moderate. Sharing a bottle of wine with a friend, or a pint of beer at the pub is one of life’s great social pleasures for many of us. If we follow every new article on diet and nutrition to the letter we may well live a little longer, but it will be a joyless life filled with food and drink anxiety, and I certainly wouldn’t want to raise a glass to that.