Across my desk recently came a reissue of the 1964 classic The Drinking Man’s Diet, a cute little volume that maintains that if you drink a bit you’ll lose weight.
Counterintuitive, because one of the things we think we know about alcohol is that it provides truly empty calories, which generally speaking cause weight gain (see, for example, soda).
With seven calories per gram, alcohol is way more caloric than sugar and other carbs, all of which contain four, and less so than fat (nine), but those in alcohol are metabolized differently, and some studies have shown that moderate drinkers ingesting the same level of calories as nondrinkers (and heavy drinkers) may gain less weight over time. Moderate levels of alcohol may also protect against heart disease.
Life is complicated, and drinking for health is a lame rationalization, but drinking itself ... well, we do it because we like it. Medical discussions about drinking rarely touch on hangovers, an important consequence for serious drinkers, which I’ve had more times than I’d like to think about. (Although I did swear that my most recent hangover would be my last, and given that that was more than six weeks ago, I’d say I’m doing pretty well.) The point is that if we’re reasonably responsible individuals, these are private matters whose consequences are borne by ourselves.
We drink because we want to, not because it’s good for us. Whether you believe that alcohol is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy (a paraphrase of a quote usually attributed to Ben Franklin) or that God has nothing to do with this, it’s clear that alcohol can bring both joy and pain.
This is also true of many other things in life, but with alcohol, many of us forgive the self-indulgence. That’s almost official policy, in one way: A bottle of soda has a nutrition label; a bottle of vodka does not. These are calories you’re probably not counting. (If you want to drink “light,” caloriewise, drink straight booze rather than mixed drinks, wine or beer.) Still, we feel guilty: Two-thirds of us drink, and many of us either underestimate the amount we do or actually lie about it.
In Britain, for example, drinking reported to health professionals accounts for only about 60 percent of the alcohol sold. I lie to my doctors about drinking, because by official standards I drink too much and I don’t want to be scolded.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that men drink too much when we consume 15 “drinks” a week (a drink is a 5-ounce glass of wine, a shot of spirits or a beer); women get to have only eight. (Women generally weigh less than men, and alcohol may have more ill effects on women.) You also drink too much if you consume five drinks within three hours; that’s a binge. And, according to the CDC, one drink is one too many for people younger than 21. Which is absurd, even if it’s the law.
The CDC flatly says drinking too much is “dangerous,” which is pretty vague, and can “lead to heart disease, breast cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, sudden infant death syndrome, motor-vehicle crashes, and violence.”
Many of these dangerous effects are indirect and can be mitigated: If you don’t have sex or get into a car after drinking, you can’t possibly get pregnant or in a car accident. (One thing about drinking alcohol, though: It can cause bad judgment.) The more direct ones, like heart disease and breast cancer, have so many risk factors that drinking may perhaps be discounted, especially in moderation. And there’s evidence that drinking “the right amount” – which is less than “too much” – can be good for you. But that amount varies wildly from one individual to the next, and for most people the safest amount of alcohol is probably, rationally, zero. So it’s crazy to say, as people do, “I drink red wine because it’s better for you than white,” because mostly people drink to get buzzed, or drunk, because bad judgment is a release or fun or both.
Of course there are people who really drink too much, and we should continue to discourage overconsumption, but once again when it comes to public health we fail to prioritize correctly. The CDC says that excessive alcohol consumption causes 88,000 deaths a year and “costs the economy about $224 billion.” Obesity-related illnesses cause somewhere around 112,000 deaths, and cost maybe a trillion dollars.
You don’t see the CDC saying that people younger than 21 “drink too much” if they consume a can of soda. But it should.
Drinking for health is a lame rationalization.