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Health in a Bottle?

Moderate drinking may be beneficial to your heart.

WebMD Feature

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 day.

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 York University.

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.

The French, the world's greatest wine connoisseurs, presented even better news in a 1998 issue of the journal Epidemiology: In a five-year study in France, people who drank two to five glasses of wine a day had up to 31% less risk of death from any cause than nondrinkers.

The benefits may go beyond the heart. In a study of 3,072 men and women published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society in January 1998, researchers at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., found that moderate wine drinkers are 14% less likely than nondrinkers to develop age-related macular degeneration, a disease of the retina that can cause blindness.

Other research suggests that a daily glass of wine or beer with a meal may also help lower risk for diabetes. In a six-year Harvard study of more than 41,000 health professionals, the moderate drinkers were almost half as likely to develop the disease as nondrinkers, according to a March 1995 report in the British Medical Journal. Another study published in the July 21, 1999 issue of JAMA found that Type 2 diabetics get the same protection as other people from moderate drinking.

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