Americans are drinking more than they used to, according to a recent national survey. Between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013, rates of “high-risk” drinking and alcohol use disorder leapt 30 percent and 49 percent, respectively.
But while that survey found problem-drinking is reaching “crisis” levels in the US, research has also shown that if people can restrict their drinking to moderate levels—usually defined as a drink a day or less for women, or two or fewer for men—their health is likely to benefit. One recent study—like others before it—linked moderate drinking to a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.
But there are lingering questions baked into the “a little alcohol is good for your...” findings.
For one thing, most of that research uses alcohol abstainers as the reference group. That’s problematic, because it’s well established that people who don’t drink at all often have health issues—or a history of prior alcohol abuse—that makes them a poor basis for comparison.
Also, many of the studies tying moderate alcohol consumption to health perks was based on older adults. When it comes to young people—20- and 30-year-olds—it’s far less certain that alcohol does their health any favors.
A new study from Australia sought to address some of these questions, and so looked specifically at the health effects of moderate drinking among adults age 25 to 36. Rather than compare the moderate drinkers only to abstainers, the study team also compared moderate drinkers to light drinkers, and controlled for exercise habits, mental health status, and other factors that could have muddled their findings.
Low and behold, moderate drinking still seemed like a pretty safe behavior. Compared to light drinkers, people who drank moderately enjoyed a reduced risk for metabolic syndrome—a cluster of common health issues including weight problems, high blood sugar, and poor cholesterol.
“The positive benefit of moderate drinking for metabolic syndrome seemed to be driven by having higher levels of good HDL cholesterol,” says study author Seana Gall, a senior research fellow at the University of Tasmania in Australia.
Gall says some experimental studies have shown modest amounts of booze can improve your body’s—and especially your liver’s—ability to produce and maintain healthy levels of this “good” cholesterol, and this could explain her study’s findings. She and her coauthors also found that beer and wine seemed to be better for a young person’s health than hard liquor, although they say more research is needed to tease out these nuances.
So what exactly does “moderate” drinking look like? Gall defines it as 10 to 20 grams of pure alcohol per day. That roughly translates to one or two drinks. But, she says, “it’s important to understand that the amounts served in restaurants or bars are often much more than one standard drink.” (The same holds for your heavy handed at-home pours.)
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If you want to make sure you’re staying below that daily 20-gram threshold—and closer to 10 grams if you’re a woman—the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism offers this helpful calculator, which will tell you how many grams of alcohol are in your drink. (Craft beer imbibers should note that a single 8 percent-ABV pint is going to hit or exceed the 20-gram limit.)
“If you’re a young person interested in maintaining your health, I would limit your alcohol intake to current recommendations, or around one to two drinks per day,” Gall says.
She also says it’s important to take a day or two off from drinking each week—a habit linked to improved brain health and a lower risk for liver cirrhosis—and to avoid binge drinking. “Following these patterns will have the biggest benefits for your health in the short and long term,” she says.
Other alcohol experts agree regular, moderate drinking is probably safe. “In a lot of cultures, including some of the healthiest in the world, enjoying wine with a meal is hardly something to bat an eye at,” says Paul Lavella Jr., a licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor at Summit Behavioral Health in New Jersey and Massachusetts.
It’s when your drinking patterns change—especially in response to stress—that you want to pay attention. “In our 20s and 30s, there are lots of transitional life things happening, like graduating college and going to work, or getting married or having kids, and all of these changes come with some stress,” Lavella says. “If you were already having a drink or two a day, these are times when you may have a little more, and that can become your new baseline, which is problematic."
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