What’s ‘moderate’ drinking anyway?
Every week there seems to be a new study in the headlines linking alcohol to health problems. Even moderate drinking is said to put women at an increased risk of liver disease, depression and several types of cancer.
But what is “moderate” drinking?
It depends on whom you ask.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define moderate drinking as no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. A drink is defined as a 5-ounce glass of wine (there are five in a bottle, by the way), a 12-ounce can of beer (with five percent alcohol) or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.
The National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse defines low-risk for women as no more than three drinks a day and seven overall per week. Across the border in Canada, the recommendation is no more than three a day with a maximum of 10 per week. (I always liked the Canadians.)
Whatever the definition of moderation, risks and benefits exist at different consumption levels. Last fall, the Journal of Clinical Oncology released a study suggesting even light alcohol consumption was a risk factor for several cancers. As someone who typically enjoys a bottle and a half of wine a week, I found the study nothing short of alarming.
Risks and benefits
I’ve always held a better-safe-than-sorry mindset when it comes to wellness. I gave up diet soda when I read that artificial sweeteners were toxic. I stopped buying canned tuna after learning it was high in mercury (and that the cans were lined with BPA).
But it’s not so easy for me to discard wine.
First, I really like wine. (I couldn’t care less about diet soda and tuna fish.)
Second, for every study I read warning of the health risks of moderate drinking, there is a study extolling its benefits:
- A drink or two a day seems to cut the risk of heart disease by up to 40 percent. This is significant, considering that heart disease kills nearly 300,000 women a year, or 1 in 3 females.
- There’s also strong evidence to suggest that moderate drinking protects against type 2 diabetes and increases longevity in older adults.
- And despite the associated cancer risks, the numbers aren’t as scary as they seem. The Journal of Clinical Oncology study suggests 3.5 percent of cancer deaths are attributable to alcohol, which means 96.5 percent of cancer deaths are not.
- The actual limits at which specific health risks increase are likely much higher than what’s found in the research. That’s because most people under-estimate and under-report their actual consumption, consequently skewing the results.
On the other hand, not all the news eased my mind:
- High-risk drinking (four or more drinks a day for women and five for men) is on the rise, particularly among women, minorities and ages 65 and older. I’m guessing the many mommy-juice memes and mom-wine product lines aren’t helping.
- The consumption level that reduces the risk of one disease may actually increase it for another.
Doing what’s right for you
My health is important to me, of course. But a big part of being healthy is enjoying life — because otherwise, what’s the point, right?
After having a candid conversation with my doctor, I decided that for me — a 40-year-old woman who exercises daily, maintains a healthy weight and has no medical issues — the benefits of drinking a few glasses of wine on the weekend outweigh the potential risks.
To take a survey about your drinking habits or to find resources, go to rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov.
Tina Mortimer lives in White Bear Lake and is an essayist and a contributing writer for many local publications. Follow her work at tinamortimer.contently.com.