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News1990April › To drink or not to drink: is alcohol good for us or not? › April 1990

To drink or not to drink: is alcohol good for us or not?

Regular readers of health scares and breakthroughs may feel confused, if not schizophrenic

Regular readers of health scares and breakthroughs may feel confused, if not schizophrenic. Discoveries invariably contradict earlier ones, and a trial may champion the same thing that had been pilloried just a week before.

Alcohol, and red wine in particular, has had more than its fair share of this treatment, leaving the exasperated reader wondering: So is alcohol good for me or not?

Before even attempting an answer, we need to add to the confusion a little more. We all know (or think we know) that red wine is a good protection against heart disease (otherwise known as the French paradox, because the French have a lower incidence of heart problems despite a high-fat diet). Apparently, that protection is given by all alcohol - red and white wine, beer and spirits - even if you drink just one glass a day, according to the new study from a Boston medical centre.

We all thought that the benefit of red wine was in the grape skin, which prevents oxidation and improves vascular function, so is it time for yet another rethink?

Well, one thing we know for sure is that alcohol can be carcinogenic and cause liver disease, especially if regularly taken in excess. Not many of us know healthy drunks.

And the Boston study, along with other lifestyle studies, is full of other factors that can confuse the picture. The heaviest drinkers were also the heaviest smokers, those who did not drink were more likely to have diabetes (often seen as a forerunner of heart disease), and the non-drinkers had diets high in trans and saturated fats and lowest in vitamin E.

And were there other factors, too, that the researchers didn't even ask about? Did the alcohol drinkers also drink tea, ate more nuts and consumed more fish, too - all factors also associated with reduced cardiovascular risk.

Bearing all this in mind, here's the best suggestion we can come up with at the moment: if you don't drink alcohol, don't start on the basis of this new study. If you do drink, remember that one glass (preferably of wine) is going to give you all the protection you need.

(Source: New England Journal of Medicine, 2003; 348: 109-18).


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