You’ve surely seen the big headlines this week, that alcohol is a lot “worse for you than you thought” (Mother Jones) and that “regular excess drinking can take years off your life” (BBC) and an “extra glass of wine a day ‘will shorten your life by 30 minutes'” (The Guardian). The research in question becomes more dramatic as you slide down the media quality scale with “terrifying new study” as one opener.
The study in question, which isn’t even mentioned by name in some of the media reports, appeared this week in The Lancet, that venerable British medical research journal. It was funded by the British Medical Research Council.
When new research tells us that a glass or two of red wine will do us good, the story quickly makes the rounds. When the statistics tell us that the glass of wine in our hands is about to shear five years off our lives we either panic or decide no one can live with that kind of advice. My guess is that when the news about booze and health is gloomy, glum drinkers get drinking.
New data analyzes old research
Drinking intelligently, as long as you don’t have an alcohol abuse problem, is part of living intelligently. I understand the need for public health officials to shout louder than the social media jokes about that next glass or bucket of wine you can’t wait to have, but pushing the kind of research results that have just come out isn’t the way to convince us to cut back.
Look at the study if you can wade through the lingo. There has been a spate of medical research in the past couple of years that involves number crunching rather new studies – compilations of previous studies. Better data crunching abilities lies behind this, and sometimes we gain useful new insights. In this case, I think the results are only very mildly useful and are being hyped out of proportion in the US and the UK.
The scale of the study is headlined to suggest its significance: some 600,000 current drinkers from 83 studies in 19 high-income countries. Wow. But that scale is also its weak point, because unlike a primary research project there is no control group with which to compare many of the conclusions drawn. I came away with a sense that they really missed the forest while counting the trees.
Is the science good?
Thank goodness for the American Council on Science & Health, whose analysis of The Lancet’s paper (“study is mostly hype”) draws similar conclusions after making several clear points about the weak science of the new report. Please read it.
But what a shame because my personal, albeit very unscientific research observations while eating and drinking alcohol in many countries over several years suggest that drinkers in the UK and the US, in particular, really don’t know how to drink intelligently and many people should be cutting down on drinks. Education about sensible alcohol consumption is a good idea. Education about food and drink and smoking and exercise and mental health and, for good measure, happiness, is an even better idea.
So do we need to drink less?
Possibly. Probably. We aren’t out working in the fields all day, burning calories like those ancestors who drank 2 litres of wine a day, partly because their water was unsafe. What we save on reduced quantity we can spend on better quality wines.
Check the numbers, keeping in mind that intelligent drinking is not just about mortality rates, but ensuring quality of life in the long run.
“In comparison to those who reported drinking >0–≤100 g (mean usual 56 g) alcohol per week, those who reported drinking >100–≤200 g (mean usual 123 g) per week, >200–≤350 g (mean usual 208 g) per week or >350 g (mean usual 367 g) per week had shorter life expectancy at age 40 years of approximately 6 months, 1–2 years, or 4–5 years respectively … Thus, men who reported drinking less than 100 g alcohol per week had about a 1–2 years longer life expectancy at age 40 years than those who reported drinking 196 g per week … Women who reported drinking above either the UK threshold (112 g per week) or US threshold (98 g per week) had about 1·3 (1·1–1·5) years shorter life expectancy at age 40 years compared with women who reported drinking below these thresholds.”
How do I calculate the alcohol in my glass?
First you need to know how to measure your alcohol consumption. How much is 100 grams?
Start by looking at the type of wine and the alcohol level. Reminder: a standard European bottle of wine is 750 ml, usually marked as 75 cl, which is 3/4 of a litre.
The European Wine in Moderation site offers a page on “how many grams of alcohol in wine” so you can do your own calculation: “a wine at 12.5 % vol contains 12.5ml of alcohol/100ml of wine x 0.8 g/ml = 10g of alcohol/100 ml of wine. This is the equivalent of 1 drinking unit (= 10 g).”
My own little notepad
I’ve started tracking in a Mac Note, my grams of alcohol per day, just to make sure I’m not fooling myself.
If I have 250ml, or 1/3 of a bottle of wine which is 12.5%, I’m drinking 20g of alcohol. Three nights in a row and I’m up to 60g or more than half my weekly allotment if I want to stay under 100 g a week.
But then I have a gorgeous Rioja or California Cab and we’re at 15% alcohol. Using the calculation above, I’m getting 12g of alcohol/100 ml of wine. If I have 250ml, or 1/3 of a bottle, this time I’m up to 30g of alcohol. I might decide to stop there for the week, or go slightly over my 100g goal but with a lower-alcohol wine.
You might find some surprises under “how much is moderate“, for specific types of wine:
“Alcohol consumption: units of measurement
1 drink unit* represents 10g of pure alcohol which equates to:
~100 ml (96ml) of wine at 13% vol
~100 ml (104ml) of sparkling wine at 12% vol
~60 ml (62.5ml) of fortified wine at 20% vol
~85 ml (83.5ml) of aromatised wine at 15% vol”
Is 100g really the magic number
Statistically speaking, according to the new report, yes:
“The main finding of this analysis was that the threshold for lowest risk for all-cause mortality was about 100 g per week. For men, we estimated that long-term reduction of alcohol consumption from 196 g per week (the upper limit recommended in US guidelines) to 100 g per week or below was associated with about 1–2 years of longer life expectancy at age 40 years. Exploratory analyses suggested that drinkers of beer or spirits, as well as binge drinkers, had the highest risk for all-cause mortality.”
If you don’t smoke, you get moderate exercise regularly, you eat sensibly and you get enough sleep, and most of your alcohol is in the form of wine with dinner, the magic of that 100g limit fades. There is no clear indication from the report that alcohol consumption over 100g a week is the single factor that cuts a life shorter. “The point is that the alcohol may not be to blame. However, we can’t determine this from the study because the authors didn’t even bother to collect data on it”, notes the ACSH [their italics].
I do part company with ACSH author Alex Berezow when he blithely calls “people who had roughly 2 to 3.5 drinks per day or roughly 3.5+ drinks per day” alcoholics. A very American view; I’d like him to read The Atlantic article from 2015 about AA and the American perception of alcoholism.
The happiness factor wasn’t tallied in the report because no one measured it in those 83 research studies, and yet it’s the main reason many Europeans continue to argue that drinking wine is good for you: when you drink wine intelligently, it’s to relax and enjoy companionship, surely one of the keys to a long life.