Scientists investigated if there really are benefits from moderate drinking – and they have bad news

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  • Moderate drinking has been promoted as beneficial for heart health.
  • But a new study claims that even moderate drinking can be harmful to our health.
  • Drinking less than the recommended alcohol limit still presents risks, the study found.

If you thought one to two drinks per day was good for your health, you’re not alone. Moderate alcohol consumption has been linked to some potential health benefits, including reducing the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, or ischaemic stroke.

But a new study paints a surprisingly different picture. Findings based on a huge data set of 350 000 people in the UK reveal that J- or U-shaped curves of drinking, which describe the association between the level of alcohol consumption and mortality, is nothing but a “myth”.

Co-author and cardiovascular physiologist, Dr Rudolph Schutte from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) said: "The so-called J-shaped curve of the cardiovascular disease-alcohol consumption relationship suggesting health benefits from low to moderate alcohol consumption is the biggest myth since we were told smoking was good for us.”

What is moderate drinking?

Moderate drinking is defined by Harvard Health as one drink per day (or less) for women and two drinks (or less) for men. 

In the current study, the researchers assessed data from the UK Biobank, a popular biomedical database, covering just over 333 000 alcohol consumers and 21 710 people who had never drunk alcohol. Participants were aged 40 to 69 years at the time of the study. Former drinkers were excluded from the study. 

The researchers looked for hospitalisations related to cardiovascular events in the two groups. 

Participants who identified as drinkers were asked about their overall weekly alcohol consumption as well as their intake of specific types of alcohol such as beer, wine, and spirits. 

The team analysed almost seven years of data looking for any cardiovascular events, heart disease, or cerebrovascular disease in the participants, reporting their findings in the journal Clinical Nutrition

Next step

The team went on to compare the lightest drinkers to those that drank more. They found that wine was only minimally protective against ischaemic heart disease.

For those who drank beer, cider, and spirits, even if they consumed under 14 units a week (the UK’s current recommended weekly limit), they had an increased risk of landing up in hospital due to a cardiovascular event involving the heart or blood vessels.

“While we hear much about wine drinkers having a lower risk of coronary artery disease, our data show their risk of other cardiovascular events is not reduced,” said Schutte.

Schutte added that biases embedded in evidence underestimate the hazards associated with alcohol consumption. 

He said:

When these biases are accounted for, the adverse effects of even low-level alcohol consumption are revealed.

"Avoiding these biases in future research would mitigate current confusion and hopefully lead to a strengthening of the guidelines, seeing the current alcohol guidance reduced," added Schutte.

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