Drinking Alcohol as Part of a Healthy Lifestyle.
Can drinking alcohol be part of a healthy lifestyle? According to numerous studies and health experts, the answer is a decisive YES! with an asterisk. That asterisk marks the point where much of the confusion lies. As a result, the idea of drinking alcohol can seem subversive to being able to achieve and maintain good health. Since this confusion is something that many struggle with, I turned to research and to Carol Aguirre, a Registered and Licensed Dietician/Nutritionist with Nutrition Connections. She not only gives us her perspective on how drinking alcohol can play a role in a healthy lifestyle, she also offers a look at what the healthiest alcoholic drinks are and how they can be consumed to reap the optimum health benefits.
Drinking Alcohol as Part of a Healthy Lifestyle
There’s no doubt that there are many factors to consider when thinking about drinking alcohol as part of a healthy lifestyle. These factors can stem from underlying health concerns or a family history of health issues among other things. Therefore, if you have any of these concerns, be sure and consult with your doctor about any amount of alcohol that you may be drinking.
That being said, there are many observational studies1; small, randomized controlled trials2; and much expert advice pointing to the idea that moderate drinking not only doesn’t harm most people (of legal drinking age and without other mental or physical risk factors), it actually comes with health benefits2, 3, 4.
What is Moderation?
The question, of course, is what is moderate drinking? For both Carol Aguirre and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans5, up to one glass a day for women and up to two glasses a day for men are considered moderate. One drink is usually considered to be 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor3. Carol also recommends limiting drinking to up to four times a week and always having any alcohol with food.
She cautions that when people go beyond those amounts “it defeats the purpose of drinking alcohol to get any benefits out of it.” Not only that, they’ve crossed into excessive drinking, which has been linked to cardiovascular diseases, cirrhosis, seizures, stroke, alcohol poisoning, and many cancers including colon, rectum, breast, larynx and liver2. It can also lead to poor judgment and behavior which can result in accidents and violence2.
Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health says it’s important to note that not drinking during the week and drinking seven drinks on the weekend “isn’t at all the equivalent of having one drink a day. The weekly total may be the same, but the health implications aren’t.” More than one drink a day for women and more than two drinks a day for men at any point can start to cross the line into being unhealthy.
Potential Health Benefits of Drinking Alcohol
With so many potential negative effects of drinking alcohol, Carol says it’s clear why the word “moderate” is key when talking about potential health benefits and drinking alcohol as part of a healthy lifestyle. Similarly, researchers at the Mayo Clinic say that “habitual light to moderate alcohol intake is associated with decreased risks for total mortality, coronary artery disease, diabetes, congestive heart failure and stroke3. Other studies agree6,7, and some 8,9 even show that the risk of gallstones decreases with increased alcohol consumption. All of these findings are for alcohol in general – not focusing on any specific type.
Healthiest Alcoholic Drinks
When it comes to which alcoholic drinks contribute the most to our health, Carol has her favorites.
1. Red Wine
Red wine is by far the healthiest alcoholic drink in Carol’s book. Since it’s made with the skin on, it’s high in the polyphenol resveratrol. Polyphenols are plant compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties2. Carol says resveratrol is particularly beneficial for heart disease because it protects the lining of the blood vessels. As a result, it helps lower the risk of heart disease and is beneficial for lowering the risk of inflammation as well.
Carol also credits red wine with increasing HDL, “the good cholesterol,” and decreasing LDL, “the bad cholesterol.” In addition, she cites some studies that say it may benefit mental health and promote healthy bacteria flora in the gut as well.
If you’re looking for the healthiest red wine, the North American Mental Health Professional Advice Council10 puts Pinot Noir at the top of the list. That’s because the Pinot Noir grape contains the highest levels of resveratrol out of any wine grape.
2. White Wine
White wine is a close second for Carol when it comes to the healthiest alcoholic drinks. While the amount of phenols is lower in white wines than in red11, Carol still rates them highly for helping to lower the risk of inflammation. Similarly, white wine is beneficial for boosting good cholesterol and decreasing the bad.
3. Hard Liquor
Carol ranks hard liquor, such as tequila and vodka, as a distant third when it comes to the healthiest alcoholic drinks. She acknowledges that these are lower in calories and carbs than wine, so if you’re talking strictly about weight loss or weight maintenance, hard liquor might be for you. When talking about contributing to good health, Carol doesn’t believe there’s sufficient evidence to say they’re beneficial.
Certainly, the key for hard liquor is to drink it as close to straight as possible. For a way to drink straight tequila like a grown-up and without the bad side-effects, I’ve found the advice of Indiana Jo to be helpful.
Which Alcoholic Drinks to Avoid as Part of a Healthy Lifestyle
Who doesn’t love a good margarita every now and then? But if you’re trying to include alcoholic drinks as part of a healthy lifestyle, Carol says to keep them and other fruity drinks to a minimum. Many provide up to 1,000 calories per drink but absolutely no health benefits.
In short, if you don’t currently drink alcohol, there’s no reason to start just to reap the health benefits. You can certainly get those from exercise and a healthy diet as well.
If you do drink, Carol strongly recommends red and white wine when incorporating drinking alcohol as part of a healthy lifestyle. That way, you can reap as many benefits as possible while still enjoying a glass here and there in moderation.
- Corliss, Julie. Is Red Wine Actually Good for Your Heart? Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/is-red-wine-good-actually-for-your-heart-2018021913285
- Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health: The Dose Makes the Poison… or the Remedy. O’Keefe, James H. et al. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Volume 89, Issue 3, 382 – 393. https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/action/showCitFormats?pii=S0025-6196%2813%2901002-1&doi=10.1016%2Fj.mayocp.2013.11.005
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/drinks-to-consume-in-moderation/alcohol-full-story/
- American Heart Association. Is Drinking Alcohol Part of a Healthy Lifestyle? https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/alcohol-and-heart-health
- S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/appendix-9/
- Koppes LL, Dekker JM, Hendriks HF, Bouter LM, Heine RJ. Moderate Alcohol Consumption Lowers the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Meta-Analysis of prospective Observational Studies. Diabetes Care. March 2005. https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/28/3/719/
- Djoussé L, Biggs ML, Mukamal KJ, Siscovick DS. Alcohol Consumption and Type 2 Diabetes Among Older Adults: The Cardiovascular Health Study. Obesity. July 2007. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1038/oby.2007.209
- Grodstein F, Colditz GA, Hunter DJ, Manson JE, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ. A prospective Study of Symptomatic Gallstones in Women: Relation with Oral Contraceptives and Other Risk Factors. Obstetrics and Gynecology. August 1994. https://europepmc.org/article/med/8041531
- Leitzmann MF, Giovannucci EL, Stampfer MJ, Spiegelman D, Colditz GA, Willett WC, Rimm EB. Prospective Study of Alcohol Consumption Patterns in Relation to Symptomatic Gallstone Disease in Men. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. May 1999. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1530-0277.1999.tb04191.x
- North American Mental Health Professional Advice Council. http://www.namhpac.org/5-healthiest-red-wine-choices-good-for-your-body/
- Lamuela-Raventós RM, de la Torre-Boronat MC. Beneficial Effects of White Wines.Drugs Exp Clin Res. 1999;25(2-3):121‐ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10370874/