We Can't Even Pretend Drinking Is Good For Us Anymore

A new study finds that moderate drinking isn't doing our bodies any favors.

I used to take solace in the idea that having a few drinks wasn't detrimental to my health—after all, all the old people knocking back two per day seemed to be living longer. But while relaxing with a few post-work drinks seems ultimately harmless, new research on the subject has slowly changed experts' understanding of what the body can handle. Now, the New York Times reports that the latest study in this field has shown moderate drinking has no health benefits at all. Talk about a buzzkill.

How healthy is a daily drinking habit?

The new report on alcohol consumption, published by JAMA at the end of March, sought not to redefine the daily recommended drinking amount but rather to adjust for methodological flaws that previous studies have made over the years.

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This new report analyzed more than 100 previous studies of more than 5 million adults and found that most of those studies were observational. This means that they could identify associations and links within the data, but not necessarily determine cause and effect.

The issue is that observational studies don't always take important context into account when evaluating subjects. For instance, in some past studies, subjects who self-identified as "moderate to light" drinkers appeared to follow healthy habits, while some of those in the "no drinking at all" category were in fact former drinkers who had quit after experiencing various health issues. Since some of the people in the abstaining group had already started off in a position considered unhealthy (frequent and/or binge drinking), those who were drinking moderately at the time of the study looked healthier by comparison—data that skewed the results and obscured the bigger picture.

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Taking the flaws of these studies into consideration, the new study found that any supposed health benefits of light to moderate drinking become negligible. Looks like we can't use the old "for my health" excuse anymore when reaching for the red wine.

The report found that moderate drinkers demonstrate other behaviors that probably affect their overall health: They tend to be healthier eaters and they're more likely to exercise. Money also plays a factor, in that moderate drinkers are usually wealthier (again, just a correlation, not a cause). So there are other factors at play determining the higher level of overall health in moderate drinkers, and these factors are unrelated to alcohol use.

The category of non-drinkers isn't entirely composed of former drinkers, either. Many subjects in that category come from low-income households, have ongoing health issues, or experience disability.

So how much should we be drinking (or not)?

The JAMA report is not the only source indicating a shift in how we think about alcohol consumption. In January, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction issued a much more hardline stance on drinking, recommending that Canadians avoid alcohol as much as possible. The report states that no consumption is considered healthy and that even consuming two drinks a week is associated with certain health risks (such as increased risk of certain cancers). Seven or more drinks per week, meanwhile, is an amount linked with significant health risks (heart disease and stroke).

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"Taken together," reads the report, "overwhelming evidence confirms that when it comes to drinking alcohol, less consumption means less risk of harm from alcohol."

By comparison, the United States is downright permissive. Current U.S. guidelines suggest that women drink no more than one alcoholic beverage per day and men drink no more than two.

In the end, the study published by JAMA concluded that moderate drinking doesn't give you a longevity advantage over complete abstinence. We've seen more scientific sentiment starting to lean this way in recent years, like reports that say zero drinking is the best policy and that when American women drink more, their lifespans noticeably shorten.

Don't hate me, but I've recently adopted the habit of drinking significantly less (mostly only on the weekends, down from a couple drinks per day) and I'm somewhat shocked by how much better I feel in nearly every aspect. Apparently all the leading scientific literature thinks I've made the right decision.

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