Sorry, Apparently There's No Safe Limit for Drinking Alcohol

"There’s no free lunch, or free drink, so to speak."


Across the board, the scientific literature has made it pretty clear that drinking a lot of alcohol is bad for you, but as drinkers everywhere have wondered, how much is too much? A new analysis published in the Lancet now provides a simple and depressing guideline: the best amount of alcohol to drink is no alcohol at all, despite research claiming that a drink or two can actually improve heart health.

“Each individual can decide what they think that acceptable risk is, but there’s no free lunch, or free drink, so to speak,” lead author and University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics senior researcher Max Griswold, Ph.D., tells Inverse.

The analysis leveraged a number of data sources. In addition to 694 data sources on individual and population-level alcohol consumption and 592 prospective and retrospective studies on the risk of alcohol use, the team also used data from the 2016 Global Burden of Disease study, an annual study investigating the leading causes of illness and death across the globe. In 2016, this analysis, which looked at health outcomes between 1990 and 2016 for 195 countries and territories showed that 12 percent of male deaths between the ages of 15 and 49 could be traced back to alcohol use.

But more recently, this team looked to see what amounts of alcohol might elevate potential risks of conditions ranging from cancer to tuberculosis and contribute to this alarming statistic. These results aren’t comforting either: Any amount of alcohol use was linked to worsening health conditions, although, as expected, the risk was contingent upon how much a person drinks. Even one drink, Griswold says, can have consequences.

Risk of all cause mortality increased with alcohol use 

The Lancet 

The debate over whether moderate alcohol consumption is healthy and how much drinking qualifies as “moderate” is ongoing. For instance, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reports that “moderate” drinking “seems to be good for the heart and circulatory system.” That same report, however, also mentions that definition of moderate drinking fluctuates across studies, ranging from one drink to three or even four drinks.

The current standard advised by the government-issued Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 suggests that “moderate drinking” consists of one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, which study senior author and global health professor Emmanuela Gakidou, Ph.D., scoffs at.

“The myth that one or two drinks a day are good for you is just that — a myth,” she said “This study shatters that myth.”

This study, says Griswold, “shatters” this myth. It comes down to looking across many different health outcomes for the potential effects of alcohol. While there are small benefits to drinking moderately — like preventing heart attacks — all in all, the costs far outweigh them.

“A lot of that evidence saying it’s okay is based on one outcome: ischemic heart disease, or just getting a heart attack, but we found that there was a very minimal protective effect if any,” he says. “Additionally we found a whole battery of cancers, injuries, and mental health disorders all associated with alcohol use.”

When you combine the effects of drinking on many different health conditions, the end result, Griswold admits, is bleak. But the goal of this research, he says, isn’t to scare people into abstaining from alcohol entirely. Instead, like many studies before it, the goal is to slowly wean the public off the idea that drinking can be good for you. Drinking is a risk, he says, and people should learn to accept it as such.

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