Heart Healthy Diet – Alcohol

Does drinking alcohol lower my risk of heart disease?

Many research studies have shown that people who drink moderately (no more than 1 drink/day for women, 2 for men) have a lower risk of developing heart disease than teetotalers. Among the nearly 88,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study aged 35 to 59, those who drank 3 to 9 drinks per week were 40% less likely to develop heart disease than nondrinkers. While red wine gets all the publicity, any type of alcoholic beverage (wine, beer, or spirits) appears to be heart healthy when consumed in moderation. If studies find one type of drink better than another, it’s usually because it’s the most popular in the population surveyed. For example, studies from France tend to favor wine; those from other countries show a benefit for beer; and a study of American male health professionals found that spirits were better than beer or wine, simply because most of these men drank spirits. When all the evidence is put together, it seems that the alcohol itself is the key factor.

How might alcohol reduce heart disease?

Alcohol increases HDL (good) cholesterol by about 8%; this is thought to account for half of its heart healthy benefits. Alcohol also thins the blood, making it less likely to clot and trigger a heart attack. Although other nonalcohol components of wine, such as the antioxidant flavonoids and resveratol, have been shown to have heart healthy properties in lab tests, there is no evidence of an extra benefit for wine over other types of alcohol.

Are moderate drinkers just healthier?

There are still doubts about whether moderate drinking is truly beneficial for the heart or if it is just a sign of a healthy lifestyle. People who drink alcohol in moderation consistently have a healthier diet (less saturated fat, more fruits and vegetables), exercise more, smoke less, are leaner, and are financially better off than nondrinkers. All of these factors lower your risk for heart disease. Among drinkers, those who prefer wine tend to have a healthier lifestyle than beer or spirit drinkers. Drinking patterns may also be a factor; moderate drinkers, wine drinkers in particular, are more likely to consume alcohol with food than heavier tipplers.

The only way to tell if alcohol really is beneficial would be for researchers to randomly assign people to drink moderately or abstain from alcohol and then follow them over time to see who developed heart disease. This way, the two groups would be similar in terms of lifestyle, weight, diet, etc. However, alcohol is an addictive drug and some people should not drink at all, making this type of study impossible to do.

Are there risks from drinking moderately?

Moderate drinkers who are middle-aged or older have a lower the risk of dying early than nondrinkers. Overall, moderate drinking does not increase the risk of cancer, but there is suggestive evidence of a slight increased risk of breast cancer. That said, even low amounts of alcohol can cause driving accidents. Women are more susceptible to alcohol than men. The same amount of alcohol produces a higher blood alcohol concentration in women than in men even after you account for differences in body size.

What exactly is moderate drinking?

Moderate drinking is no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 for men. One drink is defined as a 12-ounce regular beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine (12% alcohol), and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits. It doesn’t count as moderate if you average one drink per day, but actually drink them all on a Saturday night out. Approximately 60% of US adults drink alcohol and 23% are lifetime abstainers.

What if I drink more than moderate amounts of alcohol?

Any health benefits diminish once you drink more than moderate amounts. In the Nurses’ Health Study, women who drank 2 to 3 drinks a day were more likely to develop high blood pressure. The risk of dying from heart disease increases if you drink more than 5 drinks per day. In a study of nearly 2,000 heart attack survivors (31% were women), binge drinking (3 or more drinks within 1 to 2 hours) doubled the risk of dying nearly 4 years later, even among otherwise light drinkers.

Who should not drink?

You should not start drinking for the purposes of preventing heart disease. The following people should not drink alcohol:

  • People who cannot control their drinking
  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Children or adolescents
  • Anyone taking medications affected by alcohol or with a condition that is made worse by alcohol (e.g., liver disease, kidney problems)
  • Anyone engaging in activities that require attention and skill (e.g., driving, operating machinery)

For More Information On Diet & Nutrition:

Dietary Guidelines for Americans: http://www.health.gov/DietaryGuidelines/

US Food and Drug Administration: How to Read Food Labels. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/foodlab.html

National Heart Lung & Blood Institute (NHLBI): Portion Distortion Quiz: http://hp2010.nhlbihin.net/portion/

NHLBI Menu Planner: http://hp2010.nhlbihin.net/menuplanner/menu.cgi

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