Alcohol: Our recommendation? We don't recommend it
The typical recommendations for alcohol consumption are approximately: no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women. If one reads the scientific literature, this is the language that is used. Abstinence is rarely mentioned. However, in this short opinion piece, I want to look at one journal article that reveals some of the inconsistency when it comes to recommending alcohol, and why I personally believe that the language must be firmer in promoting complete abstinence.
A paper in the Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health summarized some of the findings from reports by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF). Included in these reports were findings on how alcohol impacts the risk for cancer. Some of the major findings were:
- There is a clear association between alcohol consumption and several cancer sites (mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, colorectum in men, and breast cancer).
- The increase in breast cancer risk is 10% per 10 grams of alcohol (~ 1 drink per day)
- There seems to be a linear association between alcohol intake and breast cancer and no threshold either.
- All alcoholic drinks (beer, wine, rice wine, sake, spirits or liqueurs) have similar effects on cancer risk, the total amount of ethanol consumed is the factor determining risk.
Based on the evidence, the writer concludes:
"Thus, based solely on the evidence on cancer, even small amounts of alcoholic drinks should be avoided, ie. there is no 'safe drinking' in regard to cancer risk." (emphasis mine)
However, soon after, the author writes:
"Given that modest amounts of alcohol consumption are likely to be protective for cardiovascular diseases, the recommendations from WCRF are to limit alcohol consumption to no more than 2 drinks a day for men and one drink per day for woman."
I personally find this to be absolutely stunning. If there was a nutraceutical supplement that increased the risk of cancer to such a degree that any amount would be considered risky, you can be assured that the recommendation coming out of the mainstream medical community would be: "We do not recommend this supplement for human consumption." This is even if the product had benefits on other aspects of health. However, for some reason, when it comes to alcohol, we are so hesitant to recommend abstinence despite it having such a poor track record, in this case cancer; not to mention all the other psychological and moral issues that often follow alcohol use.
It is high time for the medical and scientific community to come down stronger on alcohol. We need to stop trumpeting alcohol's heart health benefits when there are so many much safer ways of protecting one's heart health. When considering all the negative effects alcohol has on other aspects of physical, mental, and social health, there is only one reasonable recommendation to give to the public: "We do not recommend drinking alcohol."
To read a summary on a paper written by scientists arguing that current alcohol guidelines may be too high, please click here
Weiderpass, E. Lifestyle and Cancer Risk. J of Preventive Medicine and Public Health. Nov 2010, Vol 43, No. 6, 459 - 471