The health impacts of alcohol have been debated for many years, with various sources suggesting that it may have health benefits as well as drawbacks. However, a new study in Clinical Nutrition has shown that even small amounts of alcohol have a negative impact on cardiovascular health.
The authors of the study, based in the UK, collected data from over 350,000 participants, including over 20,000 people who never drank alcohol. For the participants who did drink alcohol, the researchers collected data on their weekly alcohol intake as well as the types of alcohol they consumed (beer, wine, or spirits). Then, they followed the study participants for a median of 6.9 years and recorded all fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular events that occurred in the study population.
The analysis found that drinking alcohol was associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events. Beer, cider, and spirits showed a particularly strong association with cardiovascular risk, while the effects of wine were more mixed (wine was associated with a lower risk of ischemic heart disease events but not other cardiovascular issues). Interestingly, even those who drank less than the UK’s recommended limit of 14 units of alcohol per week had an increased risk of cardiovascular events. One unit of alcohol is defined as 8 grams of pure alcohol, which is equivalent to about half of an imperial pint of 3.5% ABV beer. This means that consuming about 6 beers per week, or about 6 medium glasses of wine per week, is equivalent to 14 units.
The authors of the study pointed out that previous studies included bias that made a small amount of alcohol falsely appear to benefit the heart. For example, some studies used non-drinkers as a reference group without considering that many people in that group do not drink due to poor health. The lead author of the study called the “J-shaped curve” suggesting that low alcohol consumption can benefit cardiovascular health “the biggest myth since we were told smoking is good for us.”