The truth about drinking and your health

Jan 19, 2012 at 6:14 a.m. ET

We've heard it for years: A drink a day is good for your health. But some experts don't recommend tipping a glass back for health's sake.

Woman pouring wine

We talked with Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, contributing editor at Shape magazine and author of the New York Times bestselling book Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches, on whether or not women should be drinking to reduce their risk of disease.

Health benefits of alcohol

SheKnows: What is the truth about the health benefits of alcohol?

Cynthia Sass: The truth is there are pros and cons to drinking alcohol.

On the "pro" side, in moderation, alcohol has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, our nation's No. 1 killer. And moderate wine drinkers tend to live healthier lifestyles -- they're leaner than abstainers, exercise more and have more antioxidants in their diets, including those not found in wine.

Diseases related to drinking

SheKnows: What are the cons of drinking?

On the "con" side, the relationship between heart disease and alcohol consumption is what we call a J curve, because if you graph the risks and benefits the pattern looks like a J -- people who don't drink have a slightly higher risk of heart disease (the lower tip of the J), the risk decreases with moderate drinking (the bottom of the J), then as alcohol intake goes up, the risk of heart disease climbs steadily (the tall part of the J).

And more than moderate drinking is linked to liver cirrhosis, high blood pressure, cancers of the upper GI tract, and stroke. Even in moderation, alcohol of any kind ups the risk of breast cancer. One study found that postmenopausal women who consumed an average of less than one drink a day had a 30 percent increased chance of dying from breast cancer compared to women who did not consume any alcohol, and a recent Kaiser Permanente study found that breast cancer survivors who averaged three to four drinks per week were more than 30 percent more likely to have a recurrence than those who drank less than once a week.

If you don't drink, don't start

SheKnows: If we usually abstain from alcohol, should we start drinking it for our health?

Cynthia Sass: Definitely not. Bottom line: If you don't drink, don't start. Forty-five percent of U.S. adults do not drink any alcohol and there are many other ways to reduce the risk of heart disease. A recent study found that 100 percent pomegranate juice has a higher antioxidant content than red wine and the levels in 100 percent Concord grape juice are also very close to the amount in red wine.

SheKnows: For those of us who drink in moderation, would eliminating alcohol from our diet hurt our health?

Cynthia Sass: Probably not, if you have other heart-healthy habits like being physically active and eating plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains and "good" fats like extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, avocados and fish oil.

Drinking can mean diet disaster

SheKnows: Is it true that drinking can contribute to weight gain?

Cynthia Sass: Drinking too much alcohol can be an appetite stimulant and lower your inhibitions, which is a recipe for overeating. Have you ever eaten something while tipsy that you wouldn't touch if you were stone sober? I think we've all been there! This is the main reason why most weight loss plans eliminate alcohol. Also, some drinks pack a lot more calories than others. A 100-calorie shot of tequila can easily become a 500-calorie margarita once it's swirled into a sugary mixer. That margarita, plus the irresistible basket of chips and salsa – which you're much more likely to eat once the tequila hits your brain - is why some people lose so much weight when they stop or cut back on drinking.

Healthier drinks for women

SheKnows: For us ladies who choose to drink, is red wine the healthiest thing to order?

Cynthia Sass: Well, red wine does contain more antioxidants than white because the grape skins, which are antioxidant-rich, aren't removed during fermentation. But a recent Spanish study in women found that both red and white wine increased the "good" HDL cholesterol and lowered inflammation, a known trigger of aging and disease, so that's good news if you prefer white.

SheKnows: Do beer or mixed drinks have any redeeming health benefits?

Cynthia Sass: Believe it or not, beer is gaining a reputation among health professionals as a beneficial beverage. In the Nurses' Health study, more than 70,000 women ages 25 to 42 were tracked for the link between alcohol and high blood pressure. The study found that those who drank moderate amounts of beer had lower blood pressures than nurses who drank either wine or spirits. In other research, beer has also been shown to help reduce the risk of kidney stones and boost bone density. Finally, if you prefer cocktails, mix your spirit of choice with club soda or seltzer, which are simply bubbly waters, or an antioxidant-rich 100 percent fruit juice, and nutritious natural herbs like fresh grated ginger, cinnamon, lavender, basil and mint.

Tips to drink less

SheKnows: For those of us who are planning to drink less, what are your tips for cutting the alcohol out of our diet?

Cynthia Sass: I think knowing yourself is the key and doing what works for you.

Some people do better just cutting it out altogether and switching to club soda with lime when out with friends. Some of my clients who have decided to stop drinking volunteer to be the designated driver so they can still hang out with friends who do drink but stay committed to being a teetotaler.

Others do better by gradually cutting back, going out a few nights less often, ordering a water between each drink to slow the pace, or setting a limit for the night. It can also help to order drinks that help you take in less alcohol per volume, like a wine spritzer instead of a glass of wine, and planning social activities that don't or can't involve drinking, like going indoor rock climbing.

There are also Meetup groups that are specifically alcohol-free if you're looking for new friends who don't drink. And if you think you want to cut back rather than cutting out drinking completely just try drinking in moderation, which is defined as a maximum of one drink a day for women and two for men.

One drink equals 12 ounces of regular beer (a can or bottle), 1.5 ounces (one shot) of 80-proof distilled spirits or 5 ounces of wine (a little less than the size of a yogurt container) -- and no, you can't "save them up" and have a bottle of wine on Friday night!

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