The Fitness Doctor: Even Light Drinking Can Be Harmful To Your Health
By Dr. Fredrick Peters
Research reveals cardiovascular risk of consuming even small quantities of alcohol. Drinking less than the recommended limit of forteen units of alcohol per week still increases the risk of cardiovascular issues such as heart and cerebrovascular disease, according to new research published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Researchers examined hospitalizations related to cardiovascular events among more than 350,000 UK residents aged between 40 and 69 from data obtained from the UK Biobank study. The sample included 333,259 people who drank alcohol.
Participants had been asked about their overall weekly alcohol intake and their intake of specific types of alcohol, including beer, wine, and spirits. Those participants were followed up for a median of approximately seven years, capturing all incidents where patients had been hospitalized through cardiovascular events.
Anyone who had suffered a previous cardiovascular event was excluded from the analysis, as were former drinkers or those who had not completed information on alcohol intake. The analysis found that for those participants that drank less than fourteen units of alcohol per week — the limit recommended by the UK’s Chief Medical Officers — each additional 1.5 pints of beer at 4% strength (alcohol by volume) is associated with a 23% increased risk of suffering a cardiovascular event.
The authors argue that biases in existing epidemiological evidence have resulted in the widespread acceptance of the “J-shaped curve” that wrongly suggests low to moderate alcohol consumption can be beneficial to cardiovascular health. These biases include using non-drinkers as a reference group when many do not drink for reasons of existing poor health, pooling of all drink types when determining the alcohol intake of a study population, and embedding the lower risk observed of coronary artery disease among wine drinkers, potentially distorting the overall cardiovascular risk from the drink.
“The so-called J-shaped curve of the cardiovascular disease-alcohol consumption relationship suggesting health benefit from low to moderate alcohol consumption is the biggest myth since we were told smoking was good for us,” said Lead author Dr. Rudolph Schutte,
Among drinkers of beer, cider, and spirits, even those consuming under fourteen units a week had an increased risk of ending up in hospital through a cardiovascular event involving the heart or the blood vessels. While we hear much about wine drinkers having lower risk of coronary artery disease, our data shows their risk of other cardiovascular events is not reduced.
Biases embedded in epidemiological evidence mask or underestimate the hazards associated with alcohol consumption. When these biases are accounted for, the adverse effects of even low-level alcohol consumption are revealed.
Adding Ten Years to Your Life
Everyone wants to live longer. And we’re often told that the key to doing this is making healthier lifestyle choices, such as exercising, avoiding smoking, and not drinking too much alcohol. Studies have also shown that diet can increase lifespan.
A new study has found that eating healthier could extend lifespan by six to seven years in middle-aged age adults, and in young adults, could increase lifespan by about ten years. The researchers brought together data from many studies that looked at diet and longevity, alongside data from the Global Burden of Disease study, which provides a summary of population health from many countries. Combining this data, the authors were then able to estimate how life expectancy varied with continuous changes in intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, refined grains, nuts, legumes, fish, eggs, dairy, red meat, processed meat, and sugary drinks.
The authors were then able to produce an optimal diet for longevity, which they then compared with the typical western diet – which mostly contains high amounts of processed foods, red meat, high-fat dairy products, high-sugar foods, pre-packed foods and low fruit and vegetable intake. According to their research, an optimal diet included more legumes (beans, peas and lentils), whole grains (oats, barley and brown rice) and nuts, and less red and processed meat.
The researchers found that eating an optimal diet from age twenty would increase life expectancy by more than a decade for women and men from the U.S., China, and Europe. They also found that changing from a western diet to the optimal diet at age sixty would increase life expectancy by eight years. For eighty-year-olds, life expectancy could increase by almost three and a half years.
But given it isn’t always possible for people to completely change their diet, the researchers also calculated what would happen if people changed from a western diet to a diet that was halfway between the optimal diet and the typical western diet. They found that even this kind of diet – which they called a “feasibility approach diet” – could still increase life expectancy for twenty-year-old’s by just over six years for women and just over seven years for men.
How many grams of each food group a person should aim to consume on each of the three diets researchers looked at in their study.
These results show us that making long-term diet changes at any age may have substantial benefits to life expectancy. But the gains are largest if these changes start early in life. The life expectancy estimates this study makes come from the most thorough and recent meta-analyses (a study that combines the results of multiple scientific studies) on diet and mortality.
There are also a few things the study didn’t consider. First, to see these benefits, people needed to make changes to their diet within a ten-year period. This means it’s uncertain if people may still see benefits to their lifespan if they make changes to their diet over a longer period.
The study also didn’t take past ill-health into account, which can affect life expectancy. This means that the benefits of diet on life expectancy only reflect an average and may be different for each person depending on a variety of other factors, such as ongoing health issues, genetics, and lifestyle, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and exercise.
Modest Changes, Significant Benefits
But the evidence the researchers looked at was still robust and drawn from many studies on this subject. These findings also align with previous research which has shown that modest but long-term improvements to diet and lifestyle can have significant health benefits – including longevity.
It’s not yet entirely clear all the mechanisms that explain why diet can improve lifespan. But the optimal diet that the researchers uncovered in this study includes many foods that are high in antioxidants. Some research in human cells suggests that these substances may slow or prevent damage to cells, which is one cause of aging.
However, research in this area is still ongoing, so it’s uncertain whether antioxidants that we consume as part of our diet will have the same effect. Many of the foods included within this study also have anti-inflammatory properties, which may also delay the onset of various diseases – and the aging process. Of course, changing your diet completely can be difficult. But even introducing some of the foods shown to increase longevity may still have some benefit.
*Dr. Peters is the founder of “The Fitness Doctor” (www.thefitnessdoctors.com). He is also a Professor of Applied Exercise Science at Concordia University. He has a Ph.D. in Physiology from Kent State University and is a certified member of the American College of Sports Medicine. Dr. Peters was born and raised in the Cleveland area and is a graduate of St. Ignatius High School and John Carroll University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.