Alcohol: Are current Guidelines too high?

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A recent paper published in the scientific journal, Lancet, is challenging current alcohol consumption guidelines. In the paper, researchers studied how different levels of alcohol consumption was associated with diseases such as:

  • All-cause mortality (death from any cause)
  • coronary heart disease risk (including stroke) 
  • Heart attack risk 

 

 

All-cause mortality (death from any cause)

The researchers found an association between all-cause mortality and alcohol intake. The minimum level of alcohol associated with the lowest risk of death was around or below 100 g per week. Those drinking beer or spirits were worse off than those drinking wine and those drinking less frequently. 

 

 

Life expectancy

Higher levels of alcohol intake was found to be associated with decreased life expectancy. More specifically, those consuming 0 to 100 g per week of alcohol had higher life expectancy at age 40 years compared to those consuming higher amounts. They found that this group could expect to out-live higher drinkers by the following months/years:

6 months longer than those drinking 100 to 200 g per week
1 to 2 years longer than those drinking 200 to 350 g per week
4 to 5 years longer than individuals drinking 350+ g per week 

 

 

Cardiovascular disease

Alcohol intake was associated with elevated risks of various cardiovascular diseases. The percentages are as follows:

14% higher risk of stroke
6% increased risk of coronary disease
9% increased risk of heart failure
24% increased risk of fatal hypertensive disease
15% increased risk of aortic aneurysms resulting in death.

The figures below were based on every 100g intake of alcohol per week. 

On the other hand, alcohol intake was associated with about a 6% lower risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack). 

 


Comparison to Guidelines

Current guidelines in countries like the US and Canada recommend about 196 g per week (11 standard UK glasses of wine or pints of beer per week) for men and about 98 g per week for women (about 1 glass per day). However, researchers found that even lower levels of alcohol were associated with lower risk of various cardiovascular diseases and also death. Thus, based on the findings from their paper, the authors suggest: 

"These data support adoption of lower limits of alcohol consumption than are recommended in most current guidelines.

 

No safe amount? 

If the authors found that the current guidelines may be recommending too much alcohol, did they at least find a new "maximum"? The highest amount we can drink without having an increased risk of disease? The answer is no. The authors state:

"... there were no clear risk thresholds below which alcohol consumption stopped being associated with lower disease risk.


Simply put, this means that the authors could not ascertain a clear safe maximum. Based on their study, the could not put forth what they would recommend for the highest safe amount for alcohol consumption. Thus, they could only generally conclude that current guidelines seem too high. 

 

 

Don't start drinking

It is important to point out that there are no guidelines (as I am aware) which recommends individuals to actually start drinking. Guidelines generally focus on telling people: "If you are going to drink, here is the highest amount we recommend, and it is best not to go over this amount." No guideline suggests taking up drinking.  The authors point this out in their introduction where they state:

"We are unaware of any guidelines that encourage non-drinkers to consume alcohol.

 


Don't start, and cut-off

Studies like this challenge the guidelines we currently have for alcohol consumption. Also, it may be best to just cut-off the practice altogether, and most definitely, it is not worth it to start drinking if we already do not. There is no benefit from alcohol consumption that we can not derive from other healthy lifestyle behaviours like a healthy whole foods plant-based diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, stress reduction, etc. 

 

 

You can read the full paper here

George Cho