Friday, 3 December 2010

Health Benefits of Alcohol? Merry Christmas!

Christmas. It’s the season to eat, drink and be merry – something most of us will embrace whole-heartedly. Unfortunately, despite all the revelry of the festive season, January will be lurking just around the corner, replete with guilt and remorse following our over indulgences.

Gym memberships will hit their yearly peaks, and cutting back on alcohol will inevitably feature in New Year’s Resolutions lists across the country. But booze hasn’t always been the bad guy.

Alcohol has enjoyed and endured a range of roles during its lifetime. It has been revered as a miracle cure, and reviled as the bane of society. The New and Old testaments make over 190 references to alcohol being used medicinally, but the temperance movement (which led to prohibition in America) considered it the root of all evil.

Today, we are developing a healthy respect for alcohol, but there is still an enormous amount of confusion as to what the health implications of alcohol consumption actually are. Here’s some of what we do know:
Alcohol is highly calorific. At seven calories per gram, it is one of the most calorific substances around (pure fat, by comparison, has only nine calories per gram). By this logic, a pint of beer packs about the same number of calories as a burger, and a glass of wine is equivalent to a slice of cake. Sadly, these are also known as ‘empty calories’, of no nutritional value.

As well as contributing to obesity, and the host of health problems associated with it, high levels of alcohol consumption are also associated with heart disease, liver damage, and cancers, as well as sociological manifestations such as violence and crime.

At this point, as someone who works in the alcohol industry, I’m not far off making myself redundant. Happily, there’s another side to the coin:

Moderate (yes, moderate) consumption of alcohol has been linked through various studies with a host of health benefits: reduced risk of strokes, diabetes, arthritis, and dementia, as well as a longer life expectancy than both heavy drinkers and, surprisingly, abstainers. The lowest mortality rates are found in those who consume one or two alcoholic drinks per day.

There is an interesting phenomenon known as The French Paradox: the observation that the French have a relatively low rate of heart disease, despite their diet typically being high in saturated fat – normally a key risk factor. Most theories suggest that their steady consumption of red wine plays an important role in protecting them from heart disease. When this view was aired publically on American television in 1991, a 44% increase in red wine sales followed!

Red wine in particular seems to be beneficial due to the high level of antioxidants it contains. These antioxidants help to reduce the build up of fatty deposits in the arteries. Other drinks which boast these credentials include dark ales and stouts. The antioxidants in these drinks seem to be particularly effective when combined with a diet which includes fresh fruit and vegetables, and some studies claim that the effects are most marked in older drinkers.

However, whilst experts have not yet reached firm conclusions as to the exact mechanisms at work , there are some points on which they agree: the positive effects of moderate consumption are completely lost, arguably reversed, when over indulging.

Let us not forget though, that alcohol also has some very pleasant short term benefits. It can make you happy, help you relax, and make you (think you are) an awesome dancer. The news that can also be good for you may well be cause to celebrate – moderately, of course.

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