Moderate drinking can be healthy—but not for everyone. You must weigh the benefits and risks.
Alcohol’s link with health is a bit Dr. Jekyll and a bit Mr. Hyde. Exactly which face it shows depends largely on who’s drinking and how much. For most moderate drinkers, alcohol has overall health benefits. While moderate drinking can increase the risk of colon and breast cancer, these risks are trumped by the boost in cardiovascular health—especially in middle age, when heart disease begins to account for an increasingly large share of disease and deaths.
Non-drinkers, however, shouldn’t feel the need to start drinking to improve their health. Heavy drinkers, with their increased risk of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, cirrhosis, and dependence should cut back or stop drinking altogether. A pregnant woman should also avoid alcohol, since it can cause brain damage to the unborn child.
5 Quick Tips: Staying Healthy with Alcohol
1. If you don’t drink, there’s no need to start. For some people—especially pregnant women, people recovering from alcohol addiction, people with a family history of alcoholism, people with liver disease, and people taking one or more medications that interact with alcohol—the risks of drinking outweigh the benefits. There are other ways to boost your heart health and lower your risk of diabetes, such as getting more active, staying at a healthy weight, or eating healthy fats and whole grains.
2. If you do drink, drink in moderation—and choose whatever drink you like. Wine, beer, or spirits—each seems to have the same health benefits as long as moderation’s the word (no more than one drink per day for women, and no more than two drinks per day for men). To read more about whether the type of alcohol consumed has any effect on health, read “Is Wine Fine, or Beer Better?”
3. Take a multivitamin with folic acid. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, a B vitamin that may help lower the risk of heart disease and cancers of the colon and breast. Those who drink may benefit the most from getting extra folate, since alcohol moderately depletes our body’s stores. The amount in a standard multivitamin—400 micrograms—is enough, when combined with a healthy diet. To learn more about folate, check out the vitamins section of The Nutrition Source.
4. Ask your doctor about your drinking habits. If you (or your friends) think you may have a problem with drinking, talk to a doctor or other health professional about it. He or she can help.
5. Pick a designated driver. Alcohol and driving do not mix. If you’ve been out drinking cocktails and it’s time to head home, hand your car keys to someone who’s been sipping seltzer all night.
The aim of the Harvard T.H. Chan of Public Health Nutrition Source is to provide timely information on diet and nutrition for clinicians, allied health professionals, and the public. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The Nutrition Source does not recommend or endorse any products.