How much alcohol is really too much?

There’s a common notion that, like the proverbial apple, a glass of wine a day could keep the doctor away. But is this theory based on fact or myth – and what does the science say?

Unfortunately, there’s no straightforward answer. Some studies have found that low to moderate drinking (one or two standard drinks per day) is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. However, a recent study that looked at the alcohol consumption of 600,000 people found that more than five drinks per week could reduce lifespans by up to two years. That same study found that moderate alcohol consumption has no overall health benefits, contradicting the idea it may lower the risk of heart attack.

Clearly, more research is required when it comes to the benefits and consequences of moderate drinking. For now, let’s look at what we know about studies and what we know about alcohol consumption.

Studies – what we know

A new study contradicts older studies and sets off a wave of alarm bells and media attention – sound familiar? That’s because it is. Take this recent study on processed meats for example:

In 2015, the World Health Organization advised us that consuming processed meat can lead to colorectal cancer. The figure nominally displayed is an 18 per cent higher chance of developing colorectal cancer for a person who eats 50 grams of processed meat per day.

When you look at the numbers, however, you see that the global annual incidence of colorectal cancer is approximately 5 in 100,000 people, and that processed meat consumption only slightly increases that figure to 6 in 100,000 people.

Oftentimes headlines from major media outlets can make health studies seem more dramatic than they really are. It’s also important to remember that all these numbers are only estimates – everyone’s risk of colorectal cancer, and any other disease, will be different as there are many factors at play.

Alcohol – what we know

When it comes to alcohol consumption, the best advice is to stick to what we know for sure – moderation is key and excessive, or binge, drinking should be avoided.

Binge drinking is considered to be more than four drinks at any single occasion for men and three drinks for women. This type of drinking has significant short- and long-term health risks and can lead to permanent damage of many organs and body systems. The more serious effects of excessive alcohol consumption include an increased risk of hypertension, heart disease, liver disease and many types of cancer. Other consequences include unwanted weight gain, insomnia and negative changes in mood.

When it comes to the benefits associated with low to moderate alcohol consumption, the jury’s still out.

The common theory is that alcohol can increase high-density lipoprotein, the “good” cholesterol that protects against arterial blockages and lowers the risk of nonfatal heart attacks. The trouble is, contradicting studies associate moderate alcohol consumption with other cardiovascular problems including stroke, fatal hypertensive disease and heart failure.

We still need to determine whether the bad effects offset the good. Whatever the case, if you don’t already drink you shouldn’t feel compelled to start for health reasons.

Keys to “healthy” drinking

Consensus within the Canadian medical community is that alcohol consumption should follow the Health Canada guidelines. This means a maximum of 10 drinks per week for women, with no more than two drinks per day; and no more than 15 drinks per week for men, with a maximum of three drinks per day. Health Canada considers one drink to be 12 ounces (341 ml) of beer, 5 ounces (142 ml) of wine or 1.5 ounces (43 ml) of spirits. I would also recommend incorporating days of no alcohol consumption.

There’s still a lot that we don’t know about low to moderate drinking. It’s important to cut back if you’re trending into bingeing territory, but there’s likely no reason to stop drinking entirely if you follow these guidelines.

So go ahead and enjoy that glass of rose or cold beer after your hike – just remember, in moderation!

Please do not operate a motor vehicle after consuming alcohol


Are you interested in learning more lifestyle-friendly, dietitian-approved diet tips? Check out Copeman’s definitive guide to