You can trust me to shine a light on the nutritional bogeymen that most doctors warn you about — and to show you they’re not really that scary at all. I’ve done it with caffeine, butter, eggs, saturated fat, salt, and more. In fact, as I’ve shown, all of these “forbidden” foods are actually quite good for you.
And, in moderation, so is alcohol. But it’s not quite as straightforward as the others.
On the one hand, alcohol consumption has been linked with reduced cardiovascular disease risk. In fact, you’ve no doubt heard about the heart-health benefits of red wine — including its ability to protect your heart’s blood vessels, lower bad cholesterol, and safeguard against blood clots.
But those benefits aren’t enough for me to recommend red wine. Put simply, red wine just contains too much sugar. And sugar is the real nutritional bogeyman you need to stay away from.
Besides, other alcohols confer those same benefits without the sugar.
If that was the extent of the alcohol story, it would be easy enough to recommend it whole-heartedly. But unfortunately there’s a significant downside as well — especially when it’s used in excess.
Studies have shown that drinking too much alcohol increases all-cause mortality by a whopping 31% to 54%. And a recent literature review produced “strong evidence” that alcohol causes multiple cancer types.
So what’s the right answer? While the jury is still out, a new study does provide some solid advice on how to mitigate the risks of drinking. And the best part is that it’s something I have been championing for my entire career anyway: exercise.
Physical activity has already been linked to a significantly reduced risk for breast and colon cancer in multiple studies.
But this new study — an analysis of data from eight British population-based surveys — was the first to ask the question: Can exercise reverse the damage done by drinking? And the answer appears to be a resounding “yes.”
You know that link I mentioned between alcohol use and all-cause mortality? Well, the researchers found that was effectively wiped out when people exercised regularly. It was as if the damage had never even happened.
Not only that, the excess cancer mortality risk tied to alcohol intake was nearly nullified among regular exercisers.
To get to these findings, the researchers looked at data from more than 36,000 people. Drinkers, on average, reported consuming just over six drinks per week. But 13 percent of those surveyed fessed up to overindulging in alcohol — exceeding the weekly recommendation of no more than 14 drinks for women and 21 for men.
Now onto the exercise. More than a quarter of the participants were categorized as “inactive.” Another 39 percent landed on the lower side of the physical activity spectrum. The remainder — 23 percent — ranked at the high end of exercise recommendations. (But I think it’s important to note that this study’s definition of physical activity was pretty broad. It included activities like walking for any purpose, in addition to more structured exercise.)
The investigators confirmed that overindulging in alcohol is linked with both all-cause and cancer-related mortality. But when they took into account levels of exercise, they found that the more people exercised, the more their risks were reduced.
But here’s another interesting finding: Abstaining altogether didn’t lead to better outcomes. Having a drink once in a while appeared to confer a protective effect against both all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease-related mortality — at least among people who met recommended activity levels.
Bottom line: If you’re going to drink, make sure you’re also engaging in regular physical activity. This is just another example of the far-reaching benefits of exercise.
Why this isn’t emphasized more is beyond me. But, once again, for the record: You don’t need to worry about butter or eggs or salt or even the occasional drink. But we SHOULD be concerned that we are living in a nation of couch potatoes.