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Cheers and jeers for alcohol

Last updated: January 2011

Illustration: Robert Nuebecker

News that alcohol might have health benefits has made it easier to justify an occasional cocktail. But drinking still harms more people than it helps, especially men, who tend to drink more than women and are more likely to binge. Here, the latest pros and cons of getting into the spirit:

PRO Moderate, regular drinking—up to one drink a day for women, two for men—boosts HDL (good) cholesterol and cuts the risk of death from heart disease by about 25 percent. It might also help prevent type 2 diabetes.

 

CON Even moderate consumption is linked to a higher rate of cancer of the colon, rectum, liver, mouth, and throat, and to some breast cancers.

PRO It might prevent a common type of stroke. Moderate drinkers have a lower risk of ischemic strokes, the kind caused by blood clots. That might be because alcohol, like aspirin, helps to thin the blood.

 

CON It increases the risk of other strokes—namely hemorrhagic strokes, the kind caused by bleeding in the brain. And it can contribute to birth defects and depression.

PRO It might help women keep weight off. Normal-weight women who drank one to two alcoholic beverages a day had a 30 percent lower risk of becoming overweight over a 13-year period than women who drank no alcohol, according to data from the ongoing Women's Health Study. The strongest result came from red wine.

 

CON It can make men eat more. In one study, men who drank a glass of beer a half-hour before lunch consumed 15 percent more calories (not counting the beer's calories) at the meal than men who had a nonalcoholic drink. One possible reason: The body might metabolize alcohol differently from other nutrients.

Bottom line. Any benefits come from moderate drinking. The risks of heavy intake include damage to the liver and heart and a higher chance of accidents and addiction. Benefits appear to be strongest for people at risk of heart disease. People on medication should be aware of interactions with alcohol. Everyone should know that mixed drinks pack as many as 300 calories, and that alcohol lowers inhibitions, which can lead to overindulgence in all sorts of things.

   

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