Need a current event to chat about next time you’re at the bar? You might want to steer clear of this particular health topic. According to a new study published in The Lancet, no amount of alcohol is safe to drink without risking your health.
After analyzing nearly 700 studies on global drinking habits and 600 related to alcohol and health, the researchers concluded that alcohol is responsible for around 2.8 million deaths each year. They say that makes alcohol the seventh leading risk factor for premature death using data in 2016.
The study identified 23 health consequences of drinking alcohol, including deadly scenarios such as a cancer diagnosis, car accident, or self-harm. The risks of these many health consequences increase with the amount of alcohol you drink. For those who drink one drink per day, the risk of harm was 0.5 percent greater than for those who did not drink at all. For two drinks, it was 7 percent higher. And for five drinks, the risk increased by a whopping 37 percent.
The researchers conceded that there were results in the studies they analyzed that suggested moderate alcohol consumption could have some cardiovascular benefit — but that these potential benefits were far outweighed by an increased risk of mortality from other causes.
Previous research has waffled on whether there are actually health benefits to some boozy beverages, citing the antioxidant superpowers of red wine and the brain-boosting benefit of small amounts of alcohol. Though there are studies that go both ways, science seemed to somewhat agree that while excess amounts of alcohol could shorten your life, moderate drinking is OK. Both the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society prescribe to those recommendations.
Many doctors recommend no more than one drink daily for women (or men over age 65), and no more than two drinks daily for men under age 65, with a drink defined as about five ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, or 12 ounces of beer.
But this study insist that there is “no safe level of alcohol consumption” and that any potential benefit certain drinks may provide is outweighed by a huge risk.
“This is a sad analysis (I love my wine),” said registered dietitian Courtney Ferreira in an email. “But the fact is, alcohol can do a lot of harm and few people consume alcohol in true moderation. Sure, a glass of red wine can have heart-healthy benefits, but we rarely stop at one.”
Others agree — you can’t ignore the risks that come with drinking alcohol. “Even moderate alcohol consumption has been linked to breast cancer, inflammation, and weight gain, to name just a few conditions,” said registered dietitian Katherine Brooking.
Some experts question the lack of flexibility in the Lancet study’s recommendations. Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Time that he thought the warnings against even moderate drinking might be a step too far. While heavy drinking is certainly damaging, he said, there are data sets that show moderate drinking can lower risks for some of the most imminent public health concerns in the U.S. — namely, premature death and heart disease.
“Our decisions about drinking in the United States shouldn’t be influenced by what alcohol does to tuberculosis,” Willett told Time. “When you throw together everything in one big pot and draw conclusions for the whole world, it’s just misleading.”
Additionally, eliminating alcohol from your life entirely might not be realistic. Ferreira advised, “Make the decision to drink a conscious one, and try to focus on adding social activities that don’t revolve around drinking.”
When you do drink, there are a few steps you can take to mitigate the harm. For one, you can limit your intake.
“As a registered dietitian, I would put alcohol in the same category as dessert; a pleasure that can be included in moderation,” registered dietitian Julie Stefanski told us.
Other dietitians are more steadfast in their recommendations. “My advice for most people is to avoid alcohol,” said Brooking. “If there is a special occasion, it’s probably fine to have one or two drinks, several times a year. However, there are so many healthy ways to celebrate without drinking.”
Will one drink kill you? Maybe — but the risk is far greater if you’re downing drinks every weekend than they are from having an occasional glass of wine with dinner.