For Beth Korslund, a 5K race followed by a German Kolsch-style ale make for a perfect day. “A hot, sweaty run and a cold beer just seem to go together,” says Korslund, a personal fitness trainer, CrossFit competitor and avid skier from Lafayette, Colorado. “I just really like beer.”
As it turns out, Korslund may be onto something more than enjoying a post-race refresher. Research is piling up, experts say, to show that alcohol—beer, wine and stronger spirits—are a source of health benefits, especially when it comes to the heart. Rigorous studies from prestigious institutions, such as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, report that, yes, a cold one every day may indeed reduce your risk of a life-altering or deadly disease. However, because this is alcohol we are talking about and not fruits or vegetables, researchers like Harvard’s Elizabeth Mostofsky are quick to point out that unlike eating too many carrots, too many drinks carry unhealthy and dangerous risks.
“We have extensive evidence that moderate habitual consumption of alcohol carries health benefits whereas heavy drinking is harmful,” she says.
But it’s a complicated field of research, and it is important to consider concerns of alcohol abuse or addiction, risks of alcohol during pregnancy, and risks of consuming alcohol alongside certain medications, she warns.
Having the best, most current data allows consumers to make sound personal health care decisions along with their doctors—who may not know the latest research on alcohol—researchers say. And adopting a more mindful approach overall to drinking alcohol, some experts say, has added social benefits.
More than 100 observational studies show that regularly drinking small amounts of alcohol appears to improve cardiac health by increasing levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the good cholesterol, and decreasing risk of cardiovascular and peripheral vascular disease. Moderate drinking also appears to reduce the body’s tendency to form blood clots, therefore lowering risk of ischemic stroke. Other health benefits include a lessened risk of diabetes.
Many of these studies report that the relationship between the amount of alcohol intake and health risk follows a J-shaped curve, showing health benefits among moderate drinkers but long-lasting health risks among heavy drinkers.
“If you don’t drink, there is no recommendation that you should start,” says Mostofsky, an epidemiology instructor.
“But if you do drink, do so in moderation, and pay attention to how much and how often.”
Moderate drinking for men is defined as one to two drinks per day, and for women it’s one drink per d
ay, with health benefits from drinking three to seven days per week. One drink equals a 12-ounce beer (5 percent alcohol), a 4-ounce glass of wine (12 percent alcohol), 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits such as tequila or rum (40 percent alcohol) or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits (50 percent alcohol), according to Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
“All types of alcohol have been shown to be associated with lower risk of heart attacks,” Mostofsky says, “so drinking beer, wine or liquor can be beneficial as long as it is in moderation.” Do keep in mind that drink mixers, especially those high in sugar, can reduce the health benefits of your drink choice.
Crafting a following
Although data shows drink preference won’t affect outcome, recreational athletes have long connected craft beer and a healthy lifestyle.
“Most organized races always have a beer at the end,” Korslund says, adding that she is part of a running club that starts and finishes at a local brew pub, a phenomenon that has gained in popularity nationwide since David April created the Philadelphia Fishtown Beer Runners a decade ago, with its mission dedicated to exercise and quality beer.
Beer does have some healthful effects and ingredients, says Marisa Bunning, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Colorado State University (CSU). It’s made with barley and hops—considerable nutrients from plant sources—vitamins and higher amounts of fiber in dark beers. Moderate beer intake appears to reduce risk of cognitive decline in women, she says, as reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Red wine wins over beer, however, when it comes to the antioxidant power found in its polyphenols, a type of plant compound, says Bunning’s colleague Jessica Clifford, RDN, a CSU research associate. “Much of the health hype has been attributed to resveratrol,” Clifford says. “However, there are other polyphenols that may be advantageous to health as well. Some research has also shown that drinking purple grape juice may be an alternative and provide these protective effects for non-alcohol drinkers.”
The latest data on the health benefits of alcohol contributes to a larger societal interest in being more mindful overall about alcohol, says Bunning, who appreciates the social connections that bring craft beer aficionados across generations to the community table or race course.
“The important thing is informed choice,” Bunning says. “We want to make sure the public has all the information about alcohol—the good and the bad.”
In terms of the bad: Research shows moderate drinking can increase the risk of colon and breast cancer. But the cardiovascular health boost offsets these risks, especially in middle age when heart disease is a larger concern and cause for disease and death, according to Harvard’s school website. Also, consider your willpower to stop drinking after the recommended one to two drinks per day. For many, imbibing in one drink tends to lead to another … and another, putting them at risk of multiple heavy-drinking episodes per week, not to mention the many excess (non-filling) calories that go down fast.
Korslund turns 41 next week and will be in the local pub for a girls’ night out. It’s her reward for five days a week at the gym. “I used to drink a beer every night, but now I do two nights a week, mostly for my waistline,” she says. “But I’ll add one in for special occasions.”