We've all heard the news about the potential heart-health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. It's no wonder such stories grab headlines. They're the nutritional equivalent of the classic media formula of "man bites dog." As for the rest of us, we celebrate by raising a glass to our health.
But whenever I hear one of these reports, I wonder whether it ends up doing more harm than good. Most fail to mention the health risks of excessive alcohol consumption, which will do a body far more damage than moderate consumption will do it well. And they leave the impression that health benefits apply to men and women alike. Not so.
Most of the research regarding alcohol's effects in raising good cholesterol, or HDL, levels look at men and post-menopausal women. Very little, if any, evidence suggests that alcohol consumption in younger women is beneficial. Even worse, other studies associate younger women's alcohol consumption with increased disease risk.
Up to 4 percent of breast cancers can be attributed to alcohol. According to a recent study in the British Journal of Cancer, every drink increases a woman's chances of developing breast cancer. In a recent summary of 63 published studies, 65 percent of the studies found an association between alcohol consumption and increased breast cancer risk.
It's tempting to dismiss these health risks by pointing to more obvious ones, like excess weight and inactivity. 54.3 percent of women age 20 to 39 are obese or overweight. But if you're one of them and you're trying to lose weight and increase fitness, drinking alcohol will hardly help you achieve your goals.
Add that much-ballyhooed glass of red wine a day without making any other changes in your diet or exercise, and you'll gain nearly 15 pounds per year. In four years, you'll be 60 pounds heavier, which won't do much to help your heart.
Counting calories from alcohol can be doubly difficult. Not only are these calories less satisfying than those from food, these days they're likely to come in super-sized martini glasses the size of swimming pools. Alcohol sabotages your diet in other ways as well. Lowered inhibitions can lead to overeating, while even one drink can dampen your metabolism for up to 24 hours.
Bottom line: Be honest with yourself. Don't use health claims about spirits as an excuse to justify excessive drinking which endangers your life, liver, looks, and limbs. Keep in mind that plenty of other, better ways to improve heart health are out there. Start by getting and staying fit. Exercise at least five times each week. And eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whose antioxidants may reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing the oxidation of cholesterol in your arteries.
Most of all, remember that less is more. And get all the facts before you go looking for your health at the bottom of a glass of booze.
Jennifer Grossman is the director of the Dole Nutrition Institute. - NU