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Alcohol & Health: News That May Surprise You!

Hooray — that glass of red wine you just drank is good for your health! Oh wait, no, drinking that bottle of wine is actually pretty risky business. Confused yet? You’re not alone.

Maggie Moon, MS, RD

Maggie Moon, MS, RD

In this week’s post, the fifth and last in the series of National Nutrition Month coverage of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 (DGA-2010), I’ll try to set the record straight; or at least, to provide a review of what the official state-of-the-science research says about it.

First off, drinking too much has well-known health consequences, and nobody is advocating overdoing it. Abstaining is always an important option.

That said, there are nuances for responsible adults of legal drinking age who enjoy a drink now and then. Namely, there is strong evidence for heart health benefits, and there are also ways for breastfeeding moms to responsibly enjoy a drink, too.

The overall recommendation in DGA-2010 hasn’t changed from since the last recommendation five years ago: If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation (1 drink/day for women, 2 drinks/day for men — and only adults of legal drinking age, of course).

Now, let’s see if we can clear up a few things with a round of Q&A.

1. Will drinking alcohol make me gain weight?
- Not likely, though heavy drinking over time sure will. After all, alcohol is 7 calories/gram — and watch out for those sugary mixers!

2. OK, so I know that if I drink alcohol, it should be in moderation. What are the benefits?
- You might be surprised to know that moderate alcohol intake is linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease. And, for middle-aged and older adults, there’s actually a reduced risk of dying from any of a variety of causes, and it may just help maintain cognitive function with age.

3. So, I guess I should start drinking right away?
- Not so fast. It’s not really recommended that anyone start drinking or drinking more. In fact, there are some groups of people who should definitely abstain.

4. Oh yeah, like who?
- There are plenty of situations when the right thing to do is abstain. For example, for people who have a hard time sticking to moderate intake; anyone under the legal drinking age; women who are or may be pregnant; people taking medicine that can interact with it; and anyone who is about to go swimming or drive. And of course, if your health care professional has recommended against it.

5. What if I’m a breastfeeding mom and I’d like to have a drink now and then?
- Congratulations on doing something really great for both you and baby! There is substantial evidence for the health benefits of breastfeeding, and the occasional drink shouldn’t stop you from continuing. However, do be careful (if you do it at all). If your baby’s breastfeeding patterns are pretty predictable (and not before 3 months), you could have one drink if you wait 4 hours before breastfeeding. As an alternative, you could express milk before having that drink, and save it for later.

6. What’s a drink, anyway?
- Good question! It can get tricky since it can be a moving target depending on the type of drink it is. One thing’s consistent: a drink is always 0.6 fl oz of alcohol… but that’s not exactly useful at the dinner table. Other examples of one drink are:

  • A 12 oz beer (5% alcohol)
  • 5 oz wine (12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 oz spirits (40% alcohol, aka 80 proof)

7. Remind me what “moderate intake” means.
- For women it’s up to 1 drink on any given day. For men, it’s up to 2 drinks on any given day. For good measure, I’d like to mention that excessive drinking would be 4+ drinks in a 2-hour time-frame.

8. I’ve heard about the benefits of red wine, but you keep talking about alcohol — you mostly mean red wine, right?
- Nope. I mean alcohol. Enjoy the benefits and beware the risks of alcohol alike from a variety of sources: from red or white wine, beers or even a gin martini.

9. Where can I learn more about this topic?
- You can read up on the recommendations in the publicly available Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. In addition, if you’re interested in checking out the research studies that support the above answers, they’re available in the scientific report (also publicly available) that led to the DGA-2010; it was put together by a panel of experts called the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

If you care to responsibly imbibe, take a stroll through Union Square Wines’ expert-curated wine shop.

For more of my food (and drink!) tips, all with great savings, check out my Healthy Living for Less section.

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