Every year, it seems there’s another story in the news about the health benefits of drinking alcohol. It only takes a glance to find countless studies published in the mainstream media claiming that alcohol may help you bolster everything from your bones to your heart. Unfortunately these stories are almost always misrepresented, sensationalized beyond recognition, or outright inaccurate. The record needs to be set straight about alcohol.
Definitive and Preliminary Research
Suppose you sent a questionnaire to 100 college students asking how much alcohol they drink over the span of a month, as well as how many text messages they sent. You might find that the more these students drank, the more text messages they sent. But you’re still a long ways from proving that drinking causes you to text more. Maybe heavier drinkers were more social to begin with! This example is what’s called an observational study. Researchers make observations and take measurements to know if more research is needed, but no experiment is performed, and there are no definitive results.
Most studies claiming alcohol improves your health in one way or another are observational studies. Sometimes they’re even rodent studies. Many journalists and readers make the mistake of seeing these studies as definitive answers. This problem is only made worse because special interests regularly fund studies that produce eye-catching headlines like “Drinking Beer Stops Heart Attacks.” Countless journalists go on to uncritically pass along the story, often without providing the necessary context to really understand the claims being made.
Diet Studies are Hard
Another part of the problem is that human diet is extremely difficult to study. You may have wondered why researchers can’t seem to make up their minds over seemingly simple debates, like whether or not it’s healthy to eat saturated fats. The reason why almost entirely comes down to cost and difficulty.
For a statistically significant dietary study, you’d need twenty or thirty thousand participants. You’d also have to work out the logistics of distributing food and monitoring dietary adherence for several years. These types of trials produce definitive data, but they’re difficult and expensive, so they’re rarely done.
What we’re left to work with are a series of smaller-scale studies that can be strung together to show broader trends. One study that shows 10 drinkers from rural Minnesota end up with slightly lower blood pressure isn’t proof of anything, but it might become proof if corroborated by a dozen different studies. The problem is that more often than not, people take one data point to be a definitive voice in the debate.
We’ve All Been Duped
You probably remember hearing news stories that red wine contains compounds like resveratrol, which has a known anti-aging effect. Many people probably took those stories as an excuse to enjoy a glass of wine each evening, thinking they’re doing themselves a favor. But is there enough of that compound to make a significant health difference? How do those advantages weigh against the well-established harms of alcohol?
The fact that questions like these aren’t usually addressed is what makes so many of these health stories potentially dangerous for the public; there’s usually no effort to balance a typically unproven potential benefit against what we know to be the proven harms.
Alcohol increases your risk for several types of cancer. It increases your risk for heart disease, hypertension, stroke, liver disease, and dementia. The short term and long term risks are extremely well documented, and it’s irresponsible to present any information about health benefits that aren’t weighed against the dangers we know are there.
If the news covered a study that found cocaine could be useful for weight loss, but failed to mention the numerous negative health effects, that story would face endless mockery and ridicule. Most studies purporting to show health benefits for alcohol deserve the exact same reception.