For decades, in study after study, health researchers told us the same thing: Moderate alcohol consumption was healthier for us than drinking no alcohol at all. And that an average of two drinks a day for men, or one drink a day for women, could provide significant protection against all-cause mortality.
Turns out, that research, and those recommendations, were very likely wrong. A new, exhaustive analysis of more than 40 years of data covering nearly 100 studies and almost five million adults finds that, in fact, moderate alcohol intake doesn’t help us live longer. Rather, the difference in mortality risk between nondrinkers and moderate drinkers is statistically insignificant—and risk may even be slightly higher for the drinkers.
Published by JAMA Network Open in March, the meta-analysis pointed to three significant biases that the previous alcohol-consumption studies likely missed:
It’s possible that earlier studies on alcohol consumption were biased for another reason as well: They were funded by the alcohol industry. In a 2020 study published in the European Journal of Public Health, the authors found that between 2009 and 2020, there was a 56 percent increase in research funded by alcohol companies and their affiliates.
The study authors believe this may have increased the potential for bias, conflicts of interest, and the selective reporting of outcomes. These factors may have combined to make the consumption of alcohol look healthier than it is.
There’s a cultural mechanism at work that may have perpetuated the “moderate drinking is healthy” phenomenon. Many Americans admire the way people live in Europe—at least how it's portrayed in the media. As in, red wine with dinner, hours-long family get-togethers out on the patio with wine on the table, the outdoor cafe culture, and so on.
We also see lower alcohol use disorder rates and less stigma about alcohol in Europe, so it seems like a healthy pastime—and one we’re attracted to.
The result of all this? Our European friends are certainly making moderate alcohol consumption work for them, so let us Americans do the same. And maybe some of their sophistication, relaxed attitude about work, and daily pursuit of “la dolce vita” will come our way as well.
If moderate alcohol consumption isn’t the health panacea we thought it was, and if you’re not interested in emulating Europeans with their sophisticated wine-drinking habits, maybe it’s time to cut back. Here’s why that could be a smart move:
Final thought: Even if moderate alcohol consumption doesn’t provide the health boost we thought it did, doing things in moderation and in a balanced manner is still good health advice. After all, it was likely behind the better health that moderate drinkers were enjoying all those years.