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The Truth about Moderation

We’ve all heard of the apparent health benefits of drinking alcohol in moderation. Numerous articles and even some scientific studies tell us that moderate drinking is good for the heart and circulatory system and that it probably protects us from type 2 diabetes and gallstones.

The problem is, the alcohol industry is responsible for funding many of the studies that “prove” the link between moderate drinking and its supposed health benefits. We don’t trust nutrition studies funded by the sugar industry, so why on earth would we trust alcohol studies funded by the alcohol industry?

So, there’s that.

But for argument’s sake, say these articles and studies are correct and drinking in moderation is good for our health. What is moderate drinking anyway?

In some studies, the term “moderate drinking” refers to less than one drink per day, while in others it means as many as three to four drinks per day. Similarly, even among alcohol researchers, there’s no universally accepted definition of a “standard drink”.

Governments in different countries issue us with guidelines for moderate drinking. In Australia, men and women are recommended not to drink more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than four standard drinks in one sitting. To put that into context, a bottle of wine contains between seven to eight standard drinks, so we’re talking about moderate drinking being a little more than one bottle of wine spread out over a one week period.

A standard drink in Australia contains 10g of alcohol. In the United States, a standard drink contains 14g of alcohol and the guidelines for moderate alcohol consumption is up to one standard drink per day for women and two for men.

It’s important to note that the drinks we order (and especially the ones we pour for ourselves!) are usually more than one standard drink. It’s not a simple equation of one drink equals one standard drink. No, no. You could drink one glass of wine, but consume closer to two standard drinks, simply because of your serving size. As a woman, I could easily drink close to four standard drinks if I drink two big glasses of wine in one sitting. That’s double the Aussie moderation recommendation and almost triple the U.S. recommendation. Even though I only had two drinks.

And how many of us are tracking the number of “standard drinks” we consume anyway? We might keep an eye of the number of drinks we have, but not the number of standard drinks. Chances are, even if you think you’re drinking in moderation, you’re probably drinking more than the government guidelines suggest.

And we all know that drinking excessively is bad for our health. The only difference between alcohol being touted as a tonic and a poison is the dose. If you’ve ever overdone it and vomited you’ve figured that one out yourself. Consuming alcohol excessively in one sitting can lead to loss of concentration, confusion, blurred vision, loss of coordination, loss of critical judgment, loss of bladder control, mood swings, reduced core body temperature, raised blood pressure, memory loss, nausea, vomiting, passing out, coma and death. Lovely.

The consequences of excessive alcohol consumption over the long term are pretty terrifying as well. Think mental health issues. Increased risk of suicide. Increased risk of diabetes and weight gain. Impotence and other sexual performance issues. Fertility issues. Brain damage and brain-related conditions like stroke and dementia. Heart issues such as high blood pressure, heart damage and heart attacks. Cirrhosis of the liver and liver failure. And don’t forget about cancer.

In 2012 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen, along with asbestos and tobacco. Drinking alcohol increases our risk of developing seven different types of cancer, namely: mouth cancer, pharyngeal (upper throat) cancer, oesophageal (food pipe) cancer, laryngeal (voice box) cancer, breast cancer, bowl cancer and liver cancer.

The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research 2007 Report recommends limiting alcohol consumption, based on the evidence that even small amounts of alcohol increase cancer risk.

If you’re still hanging on to the moderation card, here’s some more bad news for you. According to a ground-breaking study undertaken by 512 researchers spanning 243 academic and government institutions which analysed alcohol studies as well as public health and death records between 1990 and 2016 from 195 countries, no amount of alcohol consumption is safe. Full stop.

This comprehensive study didn’t find that drinking in moderation is ok. It found that NO drinking is the safe level when it comes to our health.

In relation to the heart health claim, the study points out that the overall negative effect of alcohol consumption outweighs the perceived positive effect of moderation. It goes on to suggest that alcohol control policies need to be revised worldwide, refocusing on efforts to lower overall alcohol consumption rather than promoting moderation.

Even if you choose to disregard the facts and continue to believe that alcohol is good for you in moderation – can you moderate? And if you can’t, what are the potential consequences?

The problem with moderation is that many people struggle to do it. This is due to the good-then-bad feelings that alcohol causes. Initially, we feel good when we drink because an unnaturally large dopamine hit is released. But our body is a homeostasis-seeking organism and as such, counters the dopamine with a surge of stress hormones including cortisol, which makes us feel on edge. This leads to us reaching for another drink to gain another feel-good hit, followed by another release of stress hormones. So, it makes sense that even when we plan to have only one drink, we often end up changing our mind after the first drink and having more.

You might drive yourself to an event, thinking you’ll stay under the limit and be able to safely drive home. You might change your mind, get carried away and make an irresponsible decision to drive home regardless. You might end up in a car accident because you drank and drove. You might end up killing someone.

In the United States, alcohol is implicated in about half of all fatal traffic accidents. No one sets out to drink, drive and kill someone. But it happens all the time. My lifelong friend’s sister was killed in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. She was a gentle soul and a beautiful girl in her early twenties. She had her whole life ahead of her. Parents should never have to bury their kid because someone got drunk and made an irresponsible decision to drive. It’s devastating beyond description. Not only for the victim’s loved ones, but for the drunk driver as well.

A mate of mine spent four years in prison for accidentally killing someone when he drank and drove. He is one of the most loving, warm-hearted people you could ever have the pleasure to meet. The guilt and shame associated with the accident he caused pushed him to very nearly end his own life. Thank God his suicide attempt was unsuccessful. But as you can imagine, he suffered brutally in prison. Ten years later, he’s still battling the post-traumatic stress. And while he’s made peace with his past and now uses it to help others, he still has to live with it. Every. Damn. Day.

Take a few minutes to consider the following questions:

  1. When you think about it now, is drinking in moderation really good for you?

  2. What the hell is drinking moderately anyway?

  3. And, even if you disregard the latest evidence that shows moderation isn’t safe, can you really drink in moderation?

  4. Do you keep track of your number of standard drinks?

  5. Do you ever plan to drink moderately and then end up drinking more?

  6. What are the potential consequences of you getting carried away, not only for your own health but for the safety of others as well?

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