There have been some studies — which have now become relatively common knowledge — that say a glass of wine a day, in moderation, is actually good for you.
But some researchers have made even wider claims, in particular former World Health Organization (WHO) alcohol expert Dr. Kari Poikolainen, who recently declared that drinking an entire bottle of wine every day is not exactly what he would call “unhealthy.” Poikolainen, who has completed and analyzed years of research on the effects of alcohol, believes that drinking only becomes harmful if you consume more than 13 units per day. To put that into perspective, a bottle of wine contains about 10 units.
He also has stated that it’s better to drink more than the recommended daily amount (which in America is one drink for women per day, and two for men) is better than being a teetotaler — someone who doesn’t drink at all. “The weight of the evidence shows moderate drinking is better than abstaining and heavy drinking is worse than abstaining — however the moderate amounts can be higher than the guidelines say,” Poikolainen, who wrote a book about the positive aspects of drinking, told the Daily Mail.
Poikolainen is making a bold statement, likely to spur joy and a renewed sense of liberal shot-taking amongst merry-makers. But to make sure we don’t misinterpret anything or assume that Poikolainen’s words are true, we need to turn to the research out there on the matter.
When is the line crossed?
Poikolainen’s critics demand to know where he gets his evidence from. “Given there are already confusing messages presented to the public about what is a safe amount of alcohol to drink, claims about moderate alcohol use without any evidence to back them up are incredibly unhelpful and potentially dangerous; muddying already cloudy waters,” Suzi Gage writes on The Guardian’s “Sifting the Evidence.”
Another critic bashed Poikolainen’s generalized statement and its lack of evidence: “This is an unhelpful contribution to the debate,” Julia Manning of think tank 2020Health, said, according to the Daily Mail. “It makes grand claims which we don’t see evidence for. Alcohol is a toxin, the risks outweigh the benefits.”
However, there have been some studies that support Poikolainen’s claim that abstainers are worse off than those who drink in moderation. In one of Poikolainen’s studies, he explains that drinking is linked to mortality in a J-shaped curve: people who drink small or moderate amounts of alcohol actually have lower death or illness risks than people who drink nothing. But once alcohol consumption becomes excessive, your risk for death, and diseases like coronary heart disease (CHD) rises sharply. According to Drink Aware, long-term, heavy drinking can ultimately lead to heart disease, but the website also states that alcohol can have protective benefits for the heart if you drink within the daily unit recommendations (and are over 45 years old). Alcohol can actually help prevent artery damage and blood clots; and small amounts of booze during a meal can reduce the amount of a protein called fibrinogen that is produced by the liver, which has to do with clot formation. And another study by Dr. Kenneth Mukamal of Harvard Medical School found that moderate drinkers have a lower risk of heart attacks and fatal heart disease than abstainers.
However, Drink Aware concludes that more research is needed to decide whether red wine is actually good for the heart, though some scientists have found that flavonoids, antioxidants found in red wine, are quite good for you. Poikolainen writes that as “practical advice” for individual people, “the best course of action might be to compare carefully the potential benefits and costs of alcohol intake.” He continues:
Protection from [coronary heart disease] by alcohol seems to be especially beneficial for men, for the old and middle-aged, for patients with CHD, and for healthy individuals with a family history of CHD. On the other hand, abstaining might be the healthiest choice for many patients with certain diseases, such as depression, hypertension, liver cirrhosis, or peptic ulcer, when these are alcohol-related. Risk of alcohol dependence should also be considered.
Let’s take the French for example, who are notorious wine drinkers, but also overall have healthy hearts and remain thin despite a tendency to eat fatty, rich foods. It’s possible that French people, who drink wine more often than other types of alcohol (or who drink in moderation), are more likely to also have better overall lifestyles — drinking less, smoking less, eating healthier meals (or rich foods in moderate amounts), and working out more. It could be a combination of all of these things – perhaps quite simply living the words, “everything in moderation” — that is lessening the risk for heart disease.
But to drink an entire bottle of wine every day? That’s probably not what moderation is, so take Poikolainen’s words with a grain of salt.