Is alcohol all that bad? An expert weighs in

Dec 29, 2019
Should we all stop drinking alcohol completely and become a world of teetotallers? Source: Getty

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate at this time of year, and typically that includes consuming vast amounts of alcohol. But recent reports suggest that consuming any alcohol whatsoever can be detrimental to our health.

A study published in the August 2018 edition of Lancet concluded that alcohol was the seventh leading risk factor for death and disability, accounting for 2.2% of all female deaths and 6.8% of all deaths in males. It suggested that excessive alcohol consumption was linked to 23 health-related disorders including damage to the brain, liver disease, heart disease, damage to the pancreas, diabetes, obesity and many common cancers, to name a few.

The study concluded that the only safe level of alcohol consumption was none, and that even one drink a day could increase the risk for one of these 23 alcohol-related disorders. So, is that the end of the story? Should we all stop drinking alcohol completely and become a world of teetotallers?

Let’s look at the statistics. The studies followed 100,000 people who consume one alcoholic drink per day for 12 months. The results showed that the risk of them developing at least one out of the 23 alcohol-related disorders is 918 per 100,000 people studied – less than 1%. If you then compare this to 100,000 people who do not consume alcohol over the same 12-month period, the risk of them developing similar disorders was 914 cases in 100,000 people. Hardly earth-shattering statistics.

This figure jumped to 977 in 100,000 for those who consumed two drinks per day over 12 months. Still a significant issue when you consider the millions of people around the globe who drink, but again not momentous statistics.

Many professionals in the health industry suggest that consuming two standard glasses of alcohol per day – especially red wine – does have a minor health benefit. I certainly am one of these people, but feel it is irresponsible for any doctor to encourage people to consume alcohol. But equally, if someone does enjoy 1-2 drinks per day, it is probably a bit harsh to induce guilt by suggesting this may be causing significant bodily harm.

It is my opinion from a broad analysis of the literature that the risk of developing these 23 alcohol-related disorders is higher when alcohol consumption is combined with poor diet and lifestyle choices. Alcohol consumption is often associated with obesity and diabetes, two conditions well known to cause many health-related disorders. Often, people who consume alcohol will also pay less attention to other lifestyle factors such as exercise, including diet and sleep, which can lead to a number of different diseases.

Finally, people are known to underreport alcohol consumption, so the statistics might not be accurate — people who report only having one drink per day could actually be consuming much more. These types of analyses certainly raise many questions and we should certainly be limiting our alcohol consumption, but suggesting that consuming no alcohol at all is the only way to remain healthy is still a questionable message to be giving the public. I always say to my patients that the definition of an alcoholic is someone who drinks more than their doctor, so let’s not be hypocrites.

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.

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