Martin Schoenbeck: It’s not just about how much, but also what you drink

The latest assault on us enjoying a drink or two was made by widely reported new research this month. We’re now all being told that even the recently lowered government guidelines (updated in Jan 2016) of just 14 units per week is seemingly still too high. “Just one drink a day can shorten your life,” the headlines heralded. But there is one glaringly obvious fact that all these highly paid experts overlooked.

Alcohol is not created equal. I’m not talking about percentage strength, as this is obvious, I’m talking about the type of drinks being consumed. The Lancet study makes the same error as countless other generic studies on alcohol, in that it lumps beer together with cider, wine, alcopops, spirits etc. And this isn’t a very helpful way of looking at the subject.

The main cause of death in the UK is cardiovascular disease (CVD), with 160,000 deaths per year, according to the latest statistics. The Lancet study points a finger at alcohol consumption being a contributory factor in driving CVD. However, I would argue that calling alcohol as “enemy number one” is at best unhelpful and at worst positively misleading. The latest research shows that the leading cause of atherosclerosis and CVD is in fact inflammation (Golia et al Curr Atheroscler Rep.2014 Sep;16(9):435).

Inflammation can be driven higher by stress – but diet also pays a key role. The over-consumption of sugar is the real culprit, it leads to metabolic changes, insulin resistance and in many cases ends in T2 diabetes. Poorly controlled blood sugar is associated with higher levels of inflammation, which in turn will increase CVD rates (Dandona et al Circulation 2005;111:1448-1454).

Here’s the important part: which drinks contain the most sugars? Cider and beers/lagers are high in sugars and refined carbohydrates. Cocktails nearly always contain huge amounts of added sugars from the various syrups and mixers which are added. White spirits contains very little sugar, but mixers contain high amounts, unless you select the sugar free variety, (e.g. slimline tonics, diet cola).

And what about wine? Well, the rule of thumb is the drier the wine, the more sugar has turned to alcohol — so dry wines are least damaging. And to further confuse matters, in red wine there is an abundance of a powerful antioxidant called resveratrol, which some research has shown to benefit the cardio-vascular system.

Mediterranean populations have much lower CVD cases despite eating many saturated fats, and this became known as “the French paradox”. They tend to drink much more red wine (Heart 2004 Jan; 90(1): 107–111). Malbecs, Syrrhas (Shiraz), Merlots and Riojas have some of the highest antioxidant concentrations.

My advice is of course to cut down (and definitely avoid binge drinking) but look at what you are drinking. A glass of red wine a day probably won’t shorten your life, it may even help you stay healthy, whereas sugar-loaded ciders and cocktails most certainly won’t be doing you any favours at all.

Martin Schoenbeck BSc (Hons) M.N.I.M.H. is a consulting medical herbalist and nutritionist working in Lincoln,