Moderate Drinking is Good for You. But What Counts as Moderate?

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Enjoying a Merlot with dinner or sharing a beer with a buddy is good for your heart. Research has shown that moderate alcohol consumption can lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and death from cardiovascular causes. Now we’ve been handed probably the best evidence yet that moderate drinking indeed protects the heart: A study of nearly 2 million healthy Brits published in the BMJ found that moderate drinkers were much less likely than nondrinkers to develop eight out of 12 serious cardiovascular conditions.

The most significant heart-related benefit was in unexpected cardiovascular death. Occasional drinkers were 56 percent less likely to die suddenly than those who never indulged. They also had 32 percent lower odds of having a heart attack, 22 percent less chance of peripheral artery disease, and 12 percent lower risk of the most common kind of stroke.

To reap alcohol’s benefits, however, the key is true moderation. For guys, that means no more than two bottles of beer, two small glasses of wine, or two single-shot cocktails a day — or a grand total of 14 drinks a week. If you exceed that, those health benefits go right out the window, and your odds of heart troubles increase. This study reflected that as well, as the heavy drinkers had greater cardiovascular risks than the nondrinkers.

Most drinkers reading this will stop here and head to happy hour. But there's one key point in here you may have glossed over: How do health researchers define moderation? And what’s the harm in going over 14 weekly drinks as long as you keep your shit together most of the time and don’t have any problem forgoing booze when you want to?

The problem is that while you may not be an alcoholic (research shows only 10 percent of excessive drinkers and binge drinkers are actually dependent), those multiple jumbo glasses of wine and weekend binges can do serious damage to your body. Along with harming your heart, you’re consistently messing with your blood sugar, overburdening your liver, upping your odds of depression, and increasing your risk of several cancers. In a nutshell, drinking anything more than moderately — and we mean textbook moderately — sets you up for all kinds of health woes.

Even though moderate drinkers have less of certain heart risks than nondrinkers, Dr. Vincent Bufalino, a cardiologist and spokesman for the American Heart Association, doesn’t advise ramping up alcohol use if you rarely or never drink now. “It would be pretty hard for me to tell someone to start drinking, because it could always lead to abuse,” he says. “You don’t want to get all the negatives that come with heavy use. Besides, you can get equal or better heart protection from doing aerobic exercise, not smoking, eating healthy, and restricting saturated fat.”