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Moderate drinking may be beneficial to your heart.

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.

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.

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