Beth Prystowsky enjoys a glass or two of wine on occasion. “I enjoy it and it’s fun,” she says. But she also thinks she’ll be cutting down her consumption in the near future, which is something she’s done in the past. “I’m trying to find a balance with alcohol, and that’s always shifting and changing,” the mom of two explains.
She says it doesn’t help that there are conflicting studies about the health benefits and detriments of alcohol. Barbara Melendi, RDN, LDN, Clinical Nutrition & Patient Services, Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, understands that it’s hard to know what’s best given that “it depends on which research you’re reading on which particular day.”
According to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey, more than half of the U.S. adult population drinks alcohol in a given month. About 17 percent of the adult population reported binge drinking, and 6 percent reported heavy drinking.
There’s a lot of falsehoods and fictions floating around about alcohol, and we asked some experts to help set the record straight.
Fiction: Red wine is healthy so I should start drinking it for my well-being.
Fact: “If people don’t drink alcohol, don’t start for any reported potential health benefits that are out there,” says Dr. Michael Nelson with the NorthShore University HealthSystem. “Most of the studies we see on the health benefits of alcohol are observations and correlation does not always equal causation,” says Nelson, who is board certified in addiction medicine, emergency medicine, and medical toxicology, noting that while there may be some health benefits like reduction in cardiovascular disease and eschemic strokes, “it is difficult to tease out if it’s true or something else we’re seeing from a bias in the studies.”
When it comes to those benefits, they “are a little overstated,” says Melendi. She notes that the same benefits can be achieved through alternate means, including diet and exercise.
Nelson says that given the conflicting studies, an individual “has to weigh their personal risks, benefits, and choices that they make for themselves with guidance from their healthcare provider. It’s a complicated decision.”
Fiction: I can have a lot to drink one weekend night a week as long as I’m good the rest of the week.
Fact: Binge drinking, which the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines as typically occurring after four drinks for women and five drinks for men in about two hours, is dangerous. Nelson says that even a few episodes of binge drinking negate the theoretical benefits of the light to moderate drinking.
“It is important for people to realize that heavy and/or binge drinking are associated with deleterious effects like heart attacks, stroke, and traumatic injuries,” says Nelson.
Fiction: One glass equals one drink.
Fact: Not all glasses and not all drinks are created the same, but there is a standard definition of what constitutes a drink. Beer is 12 ounces of 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) beer, for wine it’s 5 ounces for 12 percent ABV wine, and for spirits it’s 1.5 ounces of 40 percent ABV liquor.
Some craft beers can be up to 10 percent ABV, which is twice what other beers are. People think they’ve had only two drinks, but what they’ve consumed has the effect of four drinks. Those large balloon goblet wine glasses are elegant, but 5 ounces looks like just a splash in them.
“When it comes to alcohol, I ascribe to the principle that it’s not the substance that makes the poison, it’s the dose,” says Nelson.
Fiction: Alcohol isn’t a big health issue in the U.S.
Fact: Alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, according to the NIAAA. It estimates that 88,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2017 nearly 11,000 people were killed in drunk driving crashes involving a driver with an illegal BAC, which accounts for 29 percent of all traffic fatalities for the year.
Alcohol misuse can also be costly, with the NIAAA estimating costs of $249 billion each year related to alcohol misuse.
Fiction: So, this doesn’t sound good. I should stop drinking altogether right now.
Fact: While alcohol misuse is an issue, you don’t have to quit cold turkey. In fact, Melendi advises against taking drastic action, noting that it typically doesn’t work. Being mindful of how much you are consuming and how often can go a long way toward finding the amount that works best for you.
Fiction: As long as my blood alcohol content (BAC) is below the legal limit, I’m fine.
Fact: Even a BAC of .01, which is well below the legal limit, can have an impact. Just one drink can impair the prefrontal cortex of the brain, so “safe” is a relative term. “There’s a big difference between sitting at home on your couch and being out and driving, and that’s where choice and awareness of yourself and your surrounding becomes important,” he says.
The impairment that occurs at a lower BAC level is why more than 100 countries have BAC limits at or below .05, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board. It has encouraged states to lower their legal BAC limits to .05. As of Dec. 30, 2018, Utah is the only state to do so.
Fiction: A drink or two at night helps me sleep better.
Fact: While you may fall asleep faster, alcohol is not the key to a good night’s rest. “There are a lot of ways alcohol will impair good, healthy sleep,” says Nelson, including that while it may induce sleep, alcohol blocks REM sleep and inhibits restorative sleep patterns. Alcohol is also a diuretic, so one has to go to bathroom more frequently, which interrupts sleep. In addition, it can exacerbate breathing issues like snoring and sleep apnea. In short, he says that when you have a few drinks before bed, you are less likely to wake up feeling refreshed.
Unfortunately, Nelson says that there’s a debate over when people should consume alcohol and how early to consume before going to sleep, and “no one truly knows the right answer to that.”
Fiction: Cutting back on alcohol won’t impact my weight loss efforts.
Fact: “When I’m drinking, I’m also eating more,” says Prsytowsky, who says that sometimes she cuts back on drinking when she feels like she’s gaining weight. Melendi says that many people eat more when imbibing because food and drink commonly go together in social situations, and that a few drinks make it harder to maintain your resolve to make healthy food choices.
“Alcohol will lower inhibitions so people are more likely to snack on foods with higher fat or salt content than they otherwise might. You may start out with a great plan but when you become relaxed and less inhibited, you’re more likely to dip into bag of caramel popcorn or cookies,” she explains.
The calories in drinks can add up, too. To cut back on calories, Melendi recommends paying attention to mixers, which are often high in sugar and calories. If you like fruity cocktails, pick lower sugar juices, and when making a punch, add some flavored carbonated water with no calories and no sugars/sweeteners to give it a little fizz while also keeping calories low.
Melendi also suggests opting for a drink that you are more likely to sip slowly, rather than something that goes down easier and faster.
Fiction: Daily life requires a few drinks at the end of the day.
Fact: No matter what the funny shares on social media say, you don’t have to have alcohol to cope with parenthood, or anything else.
Prystowsky says that as a parent of a tween and teen, she gets that life is stressful, but she’s bothered by the social media memes and shares that promote drinking as just part of being a mom.
“If someone is in the habit of relaxing in the evening with a drink, find ways to sub that out once in a while instead of having it every day,” suggests Melendi. She recommends trying a few other enjoyable alternatives to unwind, such as a bubble bath and/or enjoying herbal tea. “And sometimes we do things because they have become habit and not because we enjoy them as much as we think we do,” she adds.
Fiction: It’s OK to fib a little when my doctor asks me how much alcohol I consume.
Fact: Honesty is imperative. “Healthcare providers are there to assist the patient in decision. Incomplete info doesn’t help them help their patient and guide your choices,” says Nelson. “They aren’t there to judge or berate you. They are there to be logical and objective. If they don’t have info, they cannot help you.”
Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop to the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.
Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for Shot@Life, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”