It’s not often we discuss alcohol in the context of a healthy diet. However, there is actually quite a bit of scientific support for having a drink or two. If you have a habit of drinking regularly, don't assume the following article is going to be a new license to drink whenever and whatever you'd like. A small amount of alcohol can provide some health benefits (provided you're 21 or older), but it can lead to plenty of health problems when taken to excess. To keep this to a reasonable length, we'll just look at the results of a new research review and its findings on heart heatlh. We'll save other topics such as alcohol and hormones, alcohol and performance and alcohol and weight management for another time. The updated findings on alcohol consumption and heart health come from a new review in the prestigious British Medical Journal.[i]
The Study of Studies
Researchers reviewed the findings of 63 quality studies which were best designed to show health outcomes resulting from alcohol consumption. While animal studies have shown benefits for longevity in many studies, doing a long-term, human trial to determine alcohol’s effect on longevity is not possible. It would be extremely expensive and challenging to construct. Instead, researchers have attempted to review the effects alcohol has on several metabolic markers and attempt to determine alcohol consumption’s effect on aging and health risk. After reviewing all of the studies, researchers found health benefits in many metabolic markers.
Though there was some variety in the types of alcohol used in the studies reviewed, most of the studies used red wine, which with its polyphenols, seems to have the greatest benefit on heart health.
Consistent with previous findings on alcohol consumption, the studies found one drink for women and up to two drinks for men each day had the best effect on HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Higher HDL cholesterol levels are associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and overall improved heart health. Light to moderate alcohol consumption led to increases in HDL cholesterol of 3.5-4 mg/dL. To help put that into context, HDL levels over 40 mg/dL in males and 50 mg/dL in females are associated with reduced heart disease risk. A rise of 3.5-4 mg/dL is significant, even greater than drug therapies such as fibrates which increase HDL cholesterol levels.
Alcohol consumption was not associated with a change in LDL cholesterol. It also did not negatively impact triglyceride levels except in very high levels of consumption (four or more servings per day).
Fibrinogen is a protein that increases blood coagulation. In the case of heart disease, elevated fibrinogen could increase the risk of clotting blood, which could lead to a stroke or heart attack. Fibrinogen levels were significantly reduced following alcohol consumption in the studies reviewed.
Adiponectin is a protein that affects glucose and fatty acid metabolism. It is secreted from fat tissue and is found in higher levels in those with lower body fat levels. Whether increasing adiponectin levels causes weight loss, or isassociated with weight loss remains to be seen. However, alcohol consumption was associated with elevated levels of adiponectin, showing it may have a positive effect on weight management.
The study authors concluded:
Favorable changes in several cardiovascular biomarkers (higher levels of high density lipoprotein cholesterol and adiponectin and lower levels of fibrinogen) provide indirect pathophysiological support for a protective effect of moderate alcohol use on coronary heart disease.
For heart health, the evidence is strong that light to moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial. Of course, for weight management, the types of drinks and even the types of alcohol can affect the benefits of its consumption. If you need to lose weight, it’s probably best to avoid drinking until your body weight comes under control. If your goals are geared more toward optimal body fat levels or performance, alcohol might not be a good addition to your nutrition plan. The health benefits of alcohol may be numerous, but they can be gained through other sources as well, through supplements like fish oil and antioxidant sources such as very dark chocolate.
Even if you’re happy with your current body composition, the study doesn’t suggest you go out for a Long Island Iced Tea or a Strawberry Daiquiri. We’ve talked about moderation in the past and how it’s silly to think all foods are OK in moderation. They’re not. When it comes to alcohol, drinking in moderation is an absolute must, should you choose to drink. Of course, if past alcohol consumption has led to any kind of dependence or addiction, you should avoid it entirely.
[i] Brien SE, Ronksley PE, Turner BJ, Mukamal KJ, Ghali WA. Effect of alcohol consumption on biological markers associated with risk of coronary heart disease: systemic review and meta-analysis of interventional studies. Brit Med J. 22 Feb 2011; doi:10.1136/mbj.d636
This post was co-authored by my handsome husband. Tom is the Director of Nutrition & Weight Management for Life Time Fitness and Life Time Weight Loss.