March 6, 2000 (Petaluma, Calif.) -- In 1995, federal health officials
created an uproar by issuing dietary guidelines stating that alcohol can be
good for the heart. The revised guidelines, due out soon, are expected to go
even further -- spelling out exactly who might benefit from a drink or more a
Some experts have even suggested that a glass of wine be pictured in the
U.S. Department of Agriculture's official food pyramid -- following the example
of the Mediterranean food pyramid, whose accompanying guidelines recommend a
daily glass of wine for women and up to two glasses for men. (The Mediterranean
pyramid is an alternative model conceived by scientists from the World Health
Organization and the Harvard School of Public Health.) "It's clear that
there are important health benefits associated with moderate drinking,"
says Curt Ellison, M.D., a professor of medicine at Boston University School of
Medicine and a leading expert on alcohol and heart disease.
Editor's Note: Food Pyramid Replaced
In June 2011, the USDA replaced the food pyramid with a new plate icon.
But what constitutes "moderate"? Researchers don't yet agree on how
much wine consumption is safe. And aside from moral or religious qualms -- this
is the nation that once passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting alcohol,
after all -- recommending regular drinking remains controversial for medical
reasons, says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., Professor of Food Sciences at New
Even if a little drinking can promote health, the fact remains that too much
drinking can be dangerous, quickly erasing any potential benefits. And the
imprecise line between moderation and excess makes some experts reluctant to
officially sanction any alcohol at all. Once a positive message about alcohol
is out of the bottle, so to speak, the question becomes: Do the benefits really
outweigh the risks?
The Arguments for Alcohol
Research does point to some striking evidence on the plus side. More than 50
studies have shown that moderate drinkers live longer than teetotalers and are
less likely to have heart disease. In one of the most recent reviews, published
in the British Medical Journal in December 1999, Harvard researchers
looked at 42 studies and concluded that regularly consuming 30 grams of alcohol
-- the equivalent of about three drinks a day -- increased "good" HDL
cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins) and reduced factors in the blood that
lead to clotting. That translates to a whopping 24.7 % reduction in
heart-disease risk, the researchers found.