Drinking and health

Drinking and health

Recently, United States broad-caster CNN’s culinary news site Eatocracy ran a feature with the headline “Beer, Whiskey and Pork Fat: The New Health Foods?” It referenced a study by the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Minnesota that suggests a drink (if you’re a woman) or two (if you're a man) each day can increase your levels of HDL cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol

News | 01 Feb 2013 | Issue 109 | By Rob Allanson

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At the end of 2011, a widely publicised study by Dr. David J. Hanson of State University of New York stated that people who consume one or two alcoholic drinks, including whisky, daily have a 50 per cent lower chance of having a stroke or developing dementia in old age.

Chances of developing diabetes also fall by 30 to 40 per cent, thanks to alcohol's ability to decrease blood clots.

In the United Kingdom, the BBC once reported on a study published in European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in which researchers claimed drinking the equivalent of three or four standard measures of uisge beatha elevates certain anti-oxidants in the blood that defend against heart disease. Alcohol contains ellagic acid, an antioxidant that destroys cancerous cells. According to a 2005 study presented at the EuroMedLab conference in Glasgow, whisky contains more ellagic acid than other alcohols.

Judging by a sampling of news stories, it would seem whisky is the miracle pill. Drink a dram and shield yourself from the worst scourges of our modern world. But wait! Numerous studies state that downing excessive amounts of Scotch frequently, or even occasional drinking binges, can dramatically raise blood pressure which can result in heart attack or stroke. Of course, it speeds liver cirrhosis. The Mayo Clinic also found drinking increases risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer and cancers of the mouth, oesophagus and liver. There are more than 4,000 scientific and quasi-scientific studies on alcohol produced annually and they offer a spectrum of messages about alcohol and health. Sifting through the conflicting messages is enough to drive a person to drink.

In November, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States convened some of the most respected medical professionals who specialise in alcohol’s effects on health to offer guidance in how to filter the onslaught of contradictory studies. Their tips were eye opening.

“There’s no substitute for good science,” said Samir Zakhari, Ph.D., recently appointed DISCUS’s head of Office of Scientific Affairs. Dr. Zakhari was one of the day’s keynote speakers. “Good science produces sound policy. Bad science produces confusion.”

Dr. Zakhari’s impressive, if not unparalleled, resume includes 26 years as chief biomedical researcher at National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one of the National Institutes of Health’s agencies. When he talks about drinking and health, people listen. The primary issue with the outcomes of alcohol studies, he explained, lies in generalising findings.

“Epidemiology can be cookie cutter science. It implies that the effect of alcohol is all the same.

That’s not true. Alcohol is alcohol, but the pattern of drinking is more important than what you’re drinking,” he explained.

When a person reports his drinking to a doctor, frequency might seem extraneous, but it makes a difference on the body. Dr. Zakhari also said many studies fail to draw direct connections between cause and effect. For instance, a study might find increased rates of a specific cancer in a population of drinkers, but doesn’t account for what and how they drank, or lifestyle choices they made, 20 years earlier, which could have long-term health impacts.

According to DISCUS senior vice president Frank Coleman, economic trends indicate a culture moving toward thoughtful consumption. The liquor industry’s biggest growth is happening at premium levels, he noted. It’s a sign that people are drinking better, not more.

If you cut through the noise of scientific literature, the reality is that alcohol can play a role in a healthy lifestyle if one drinks in moderation, which means one a day for women, two for men. Most studies point out that detail, but sometimes it’s eclipsed by the sensational headline message. To this end, under Dr. Zakhari’s supervision, DISCUS has rolled out an extensive initiative to promote moderation, including high profile advertisements about serving sizes: 1.5 ounces of spirit equals 12 ounces of beer equals five ounces of wine. The initiative has a website (drinkinmoderation.org) and a Facebook page. The programme also involves reaching out to health officials and medical professionals to communicate a simple truth:

“There is no beverage of moderation, only practice of moderation,” said Dr. Zakhari. “If you don’t drink, don’t start. If you do, do it in moderation.” Or as the Mayo Clinic study that CNN reported on advises: “If you don't drink alcohol, don't start just to try raising your HDL levels.”
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