Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

The pros and cons of drinking: Weighing alcohol's effects on the body

(Photo Illustration By J Porter/the Washington Post; Photos On Opposite Page From Istockphoto)
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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, December 31, 2009

A few months ago I received a book called "The Two Martini Diet" (Authorhouse, 2008), in which Jerry Sorlucco documents his success at losing more than 100 pounds without forgoing his daily cocktails. He doesn't break new diet-book ground: Sorlucco follows well-established practices such as controlling portion sizes, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and managing his calorie intake and expenditure to accommodate those drinks.

I've kept the book on my desk because I'm intrigued by the interplay between healthful eating and alcohol consumption. Is it really possible, I've wondered, to incorporate alcoholic beverages into a healthful diet and lifestyle, or are those of us who hope it is possible just fooling ourselves?

New Year's Eve seems a perfect time to explore this topic: Tonight we may enjoy a midnight toast; come morning, we might resolve to cut back or quit drinking altogether.

Drinking is often considered a vice. But unlike smoking or using recreational drugs, behaviors for which it's hard to claim any health benefits, evidence is mounting that partaking of alcohol can promote not only health but also longevity.

I'm aware that my own affection for martinis may skew my opinion about the merits of including cocktails in one's diet. So I turned to some experts -- Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition and a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Donald Hensrud, a specialist in preventive and internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic and medical editor in chief of "The Mayo Clinic Diet" book, to be released Friday -- to help me put alcohol in its proper place. I hope you'll join me in reviewing their comments and deciding for yourself whether drinking belongs in your life.

First, though, let's agree on some basics: Pregnant women shouldn't drink, and people with family histories of alcoholism and certain cancers should think very carefully before lifting a glass and probably should abstain. If we choose to drink, we should avoid bingeing, which erases any potential health benefits. And never, ever should we get behind the wheel of a car after imbibing.

Beyond that, drinking has its pros and cons, depending on your own health and the health conditions you're most concerned about. Here's a breakdown of what we know about alcohol's effects on various aspects of our bodies and minds:

Heart disease

Willett says: "There's clear evidence that alcohol reduces heart-disease risk if consumed in moderation. It's substantial, a 30 to 40 percent reduction." And, he adds, "Contrary to what the French say, it is the alcohol" that confers the benefit, regardless of whether one drinks wine, beer or spirits.

Hensrud attributes half of the cardiovascular benefit associated with drinking to the fact that alcohol raises levels of HDL, or "good" cholesterol, in the bloodstream. Beyond that, he says, it thins blood and decreases platelet aggregation, which helps reduce clotting. Alcohol may help decrease inflammation, a key player in many diseases (including cancer and heart disease) and reduces risk of ischemic stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel that supplies blood to the brain is blocked by a clot.

Although alcohol is a depressant, some of its benefits may derive from its salubrious effect on our mood. In moderate amounts, Hensrud says, alcohol can help reduce stress, which is increasingly recognized as contributing to ill health.

Before you hook up your IV to a bottle of gin, Hensrud says that alcohol increases blood pressure and triglycerides in the blood, both of which can contribute to heart disease. Drinking can also cause cardiomyopathy (in which the heart doesn't beat properly), though Hensrud says that risk is outweighed by the heart-health benefits noted above.

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