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Picture of Red Wine Glass

One of the questions I get asked the most frequently is whether alcohol consumption is compatible with healthy living, and if so, what types are best, and how much is acceptable? Is red wine the ultimate tipple, or can can grain based fermented beverages (aka beer) play a role?

Although alcohol is often demonised within the health and fitness community, and undoubtedly chronic alcohol consumption and binge drinking will ruin your health and your physique, there are also those who claim that moderate alcohol consumption will not only do you no harm, but could in fact be good for you.

The following link contains further links to a number of studies that have found a correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and increased longevity:

href=”http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/InTheNews/MedicalReports/Longevity/”>http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/InTheNews/MedicalReports/Longevity/

The evidence in favour of moderate alcohol consumption seems pretty compelling!  That’s a lot of studies, covering a lot of people – Surely conclusive proof that we should all be consuming 1-2 drinks per day?

One quote I found of particular interest was from the Danish National Institute of Public Health which found:

Cardiac disease is a major cause of death and aerobic exercise can also reduce the risk of such death, but it can’t serve as a substitute for the moderate consumption of alcohol.

Regular exercise can’t substitute for the moderate consumption of alcohol?  Should we be spending less time in the gym, more in the pub?

The problem with all of these studies, however, is that they are observational in nature. That is, rather than being a controlled study with independently tested variables, scientists simply look for population trends. While this can raise some interesting questions, one must always bear in mind that correlation does not imply causation.

All scientists should know this, but unfortunately, due to a mixture of human nature, corporate sponsorship, and sloppy (or biased) media reporting, this message does not get passed onto the public, and instead we get messages along the lines of “[Insert product here] prevents [Insert disease here]”.

Despite their limitations however, these kind of studies can be very useful. For instance, scientist noted that people that smoked tended to have much higher rates of lung cancer, as did people that were regularly exposed to asbestos. Further investigation found the mechanisms by which both these toxins caused the damage, and as a result innumerable premature deaths have been prevented.

On the flip side of the coin, however, there are so many confounding factors involved in human behaviours, it is easy to be led astray. A good example of this is Ancel Keys 7 countries study – By plotting the data of 7 countries’ saturated fat consumption and rates of heart disease on a graph, Keys concluded that increased fat intake = increased heart disease, and thus was born the Lipid Hypothesis. Unfortunately Keys didn’t take into account confounding factors – I.e. if you look at the same countries and plot TV ownership, car ownership or sugar consumption against heart disease rates, you get pretty much the same trend line!

Another example of results being distorted can be found in one of the above alcohol studies. The positive association between alcohol consumption and longevity found in the Frammington Study were initially suppressed by the government, and people were told to decrease their consumption regardless. This was the same study that found no correlation between saturated fat consumption and mortality risk, and yet the government still advised the population to follow a low fat diet! Another fine example of evidence being ignored when it doesn’t fit a pre-formed hypothesis.

This potential for distortion and misinterpretation makes me dubious whenever I see any kind of epidemiological data being reported as scientific fact (or any kind of study for that matter). I accept that moderate drinkers generally live longer than teetotallers, but is this necessarily down to any protective properties of booze itself, or just down to the fact that people that don’t drink at all are doing something else that is inherently dangerous?

Scientists have proposed a number of possible mechanisms by which drinking can protect health – Reservatol in red wine, blood thinning effects of alcohol itself etc, but none have actually been proven. Also, a number of studies, found that drinking 2-4 alcoholic beverages per day reduced risk of death from ALL CAUSES. This presumably included getting run over, choking and being savaged by bears – Show me a mechanism for how alcohol helps there!

Another spanner in the works for the alcohol prolongs life theory is that one of the, the 7th Day Adventists in California, a group renowned for an unusually high proportion of centenarians, are teetotal.*

Is it possible, that rather than being due to any magical property of alcohol, the life extending properties come from the social aspects of drinking? Are those people having a glass of wine each evening doing so with their loving partner (being in a relationship also shown to increase longevity), or those having a few beers a week doing so with their mates down at the pub (again, having a good social network of true friends also associated with longer life expectancy), whereas the teetotallers are sat alone, depressed at home, eating cake?

So the conclusion of my extensive research scouring studies covering over 100 000 people over numerous continents? Still none the wiser! People live to 100 eating vegetarian diets (not vegan – dairy and eggs supply the essential nutrients) and abstaining from alcohol altogether, while others can drink everyday and eat burgers and still get their letter from the Queen. Despite their best efforts to pin down the secret of eternal youth, the scientists have still to find the secret.

Human life is so complex, with so many interacting factors – Genetics, environment, diet, lifestyle, social/psychosomatic – It is pretty much impossible to isolate the effects of one factor (unless as with the case of smoking and asbestos it has a significant negative impact).

That said, as moderate alcohol consumption clearly doesn’t have any negative effects on your life expectancy or health, and may even be beneficial, so it appears there is no compelling reason why its regular consumption should not be compatible with a healthy lifestyle.

In my next post I’m going to look at the effects of alcohol consumption on body composition, athletic performance, and whether there is any benefit to choosing one type of alcohol over another.

In the meantime, bottoms up!

*Thanks to Ivor in the comments for the correction on the Okinawans

Thanks for reading, I hope you found this post of interest. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments below, or feel free to tweet me at @Simon_Whyatt

5 comments

  1. So far as I’m aware, the evidence is quite clear that Okinawans DO drink.

    This link http://www.wellnessletter.com/ucberkeley/feature/eat-like-an-okinawan/ says:

    “Okinawans do drink alcohol, but women usually stick to one drink a day, while men average twice that. Moderation is the key.”

    This link http://www.okicent.org/study.html says specifically of longer-lived Okinawans:

    “Elderly Okinawans were found to have impressively young, clean arteries, low cholesterol, and low homocysteine levels when compared to Westerners. These factors help reduce their risk for coronary heart disease by up to 80% and keep stroke levels low.

    Their healthy arteries appear to be in large part due to their lifestyle: diet, regular exercise, moderate alcohol use, avoidance of smoking, blood pressure control, and a stress-minimizing psychospiritual outlook.”

    If you’ re going by something Dan Buettner has said somewhere, I’d advise caution. I’ve several times found him to be rather sloppy with his evidence. For example in his TED talk “How to Live to be 100+” he claims 16 minutes in that “none of them [Blue Zone cultures] exercise – at least the way we think of exercise”.

    Yet at 14’50” in he quite plainly falsifies his own claim by showing two centenarians taking a regular dip in a swimming pool/ waterskiing or boarding and lifting weights/cycling on a stationary exercise bicycle!

    There are other generalizations and questionable claims in his evidence, but I quote just this one to show that he may not meet sufficiently rigorous scientific data standards to use as a source against other available evidence.

    Wishing you lifelong health, naturally

    Ivor

    PS Following this excellent post by Ned Kock

    http://healthcorrelator.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/how-much-alcohol-is-optimal-maybe-less.html

    on the optimal amount of alcohol for health (which turns out to be around 6g alcohol=~1 tbsp=~4 tsp), I have started adding a daily tablespoon of brandy or whisky to cocoa or food. Otherwise I’m teetotal.

    1. Hi Ivor,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I’m not familiar with Dan Buettner, so I can’t really comment on his claims.

      I have seen Ned Knock’s blog however, and the post of which you speak.

      Mr Knock is certainly a great statistician, however I think it is important to remember that no matter how well you crunch the numbers, a correlation is still never more than a correlation.

      Human life is incredibly complex, and attempting to infer cause and effect from observational data is really an impossible task. That is really the point of this post, and much of this blog.

      Personally I do drink alcohol moderately – I love enjoying real ales, craft beers and the occasional single malt, either at home with my wife, or out in the local pub with friends.

      If we can add the Okinawans to the list of healthy populations who also enjoyed a tipple, all the better, but I would still be hesitant to recommend anyone choose to deliberately drink alcohol in order to try and achieve any kind of health benefit. It is just as likely that the Okinawans were healthy and long lived despite their alcohol consumption.

      Pure speculation of course, but I would be willing to bet that the Okinawans drinking habits did not involve adding a tablespoon of spirits to their diet per day, with the express purpose of increasing longevity.

      Deciding to make any lifestyle change, based purely on observational evidence is a very risky business. The UK and the US are more obsessed with health, than any other society is, or ever has been, constantly trying to cut things out or include things in order to cheat death, but it may well be that this stressing and worrying about what to eat/not to eat is as bad as any other potential lifestyle factor.

      There are numerous theories as to why moderate alcohol consumption may be beneficial, but as yet nothing concrete. Is it the alcohol itself, could it be the fermentation process, or is it the social aspect?

      What if the benefits just come from non distilled beverages such as beer and wine? What if it is from the relaxation and conversation that comes with sharing a few tipples with someone close?

      Okinawans aside, 7th Day Adventists, and Mormons if you’d like another example, do pretty well without alcohol, so if you’re happy being teetotal, I really see no reason to change.

      If you do want to drink some whiskey however, they’ve a great selection of single malts in my local, so if you’re ever in the Manchester area drop me a line and I’ll happily drink one with you!

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