The spirit of pleasure & health: a good cocktail to enjoy

Many people may have wondered about the recently postulated claim in the media that there would be no such thing as a safe level of drinking. Yet looking a little closer at this claim it is less of a wonder to see that it contains a number of fundamental flaws.

From a logical and philosophical point of view, nothing in life really is absolutely safe or risk-free – least of all, life itself. There is, quite simply, no such thing as an absolutely safe level of living. But what exactly is the (safer) alternative?

When talking about food and drink, good (and safe) habits to follow are usually linked to the levels and patterns of consumption, as these can influence the associated health risks or benefits. For instance, common sense tells us that eating an egg from time to time may generate certain health benefits but that eating 20 eggs a day will likely lead to the opposite.

In June 2019, a meta-analysis1 appeared that takes these aspects of quantity and frequency of intake into account for alcohol, with an interesting result. The study assessed the association between different levels of drinking and colorectal cancer (one specific cancer type). The meta-analysis finds that people who consume alcoholic drinks containing up to 28g of ethanol (almost 3 standard drinks) are facing an 8% lower risk to develop colorectal cancer compared to abstainers. There was no difference between abstainers and those consuming between 3 to 4 standard drinks, but a statistically significant risk increase was obtained for people who consume more than 4 standard drinks a day. In other words, according to this meta-analysis consisting of 16 studies, the habit of light-to-moderate drinking was associated with the lowest possible risk of developing colorectal cancer.

To be sure, the exact relationship between different levels of alcohol intake may differ for different diseases (or cancer types). Yet for most alcohol-related cancer types (including colorectal cancer), as well as for the all-cause mortality risk, the evidence would seem to suggest that, for healthy adults, light-to-moderate drinking could help to reduce mortality risk. To be absolutely clear: nobody should ever drink in moderation with a view to potential health or life expectancy benefits. Yet what the findings seem to confirm is that light to moderate drinking would appear to be a sensible (and safe) habit to follow…

(1) Publication: McNabb, S., Harrison, T. A., Albanes, D., Berndt, S. I., Brenner, H., Caan, B. J., et al. (2019). Meta-analysis of 16 studies of the association of alcohol with colorectal cancer. International Journal of Cancer.