Eating Healthy: the Basics

1. What is a healthy breakfast?
2. What is a healthy lunch?
3. What is a healthy dinner?
4. How much should I weigh?
5. How many calories should I be eating?
6. What is the best way to lose weight?
7. How can I keep my weight loss goal in mind and stay motivated?
8. What is a healthy weekly weight loss?
9. How to set weight loss goals and make them happen
10. How to keep a food diary, and why it is essential to successful weight loss
11. Are all fats bad for you?
12. Are saturated fats bad for you?
13. Are unsaturated fats good for you?
14. Are carbohydrates bad for you?
15. Is fiber good for you?
16. How to read nutrition/food labels
17. How to plan your weekly menus
18. Why should I eat less salt?
19. What do the sodium (salt) numbers mean on food labels?
20. What is The Mediterranean Diet?
21. Why eating vegetables is good for you
22. Why eating fruit and nuts is good for you
23. Why are cereals and whole grains good for you?
24. What are legumes, and why are they good for you?
25. Why is eating fish good for you?
26. Which fats and oils are good for you?
27. Are dairy products good for you?
28. Which meats should I not eat?
29. Is drinking alcohol good for you?
30. Is it important to measure your ingredients?
31. Are snacks good for you?
32. How to choose the right portion size
33. Can you lose weight with a smaller plate?
34. Eat healthier by cleaning out your pantry
35. Which oils and fats should I keep in my pantry?
35. Which oils and fats are good for you - and when should I use them?
36. Which carbohydrates are good for you?
37. What is the best chicken or turkey for you?
38. Are dairy products good for you?
39. Which nuts and seeds should I eat?
40. Is red meat like beef or pork bad or good for you?
41. Is eating dessert good or bad for you?
42. Is drinking soda bad for you?
43. Is drinking coffee bad for you?
44. How can healthy food taste good? Part 1
45. How can healthy food taste good? Part 2
46. How to eat healthy while eating out
47. Are vitamins and supplements necessary to eat healthy?
48. How to eat healthy while traveling


Eating Healthy: the Basics

Is alcohol good for you?

Alcohol in a Mediterranean Diet

red wine being poured into a wine glass

I get questions from patients all the time about whether it is safe or healthy for them drink alcohol.

The short answer is yes, but first and foremost, drinking too much alcohol is bad for you. Even so, the best research we have shows that those drinking between 2 and 2 1/2 drinks per day for men or 1 to 2 per day for women live longer. 

The key is moderation. 

The earliest meaningful research was done by a cardiologist named Arthur Klatsky. He noticed that many of his patients with heart disease were not drinkers. This led him to study of over 80,000 patients and he discovered those who drank more had a much lower risk of dying from a heart attack. Dr. Klatsky's research has since been repeatedly confirmed. For instance, an early population study of Mediterranean countries showed the lowest risks of death from heart disease in those consuming the most alcohol. The important point is that research on Mediterranean Diet shows that alcohol is generally consumed with meals.   (Lipids in Hlth and Dis 2005;4:17)

It's a good idea to be careful when consuming alcohol at meals and wait until you have begun eating. In one study, men consuming alcohol before eating (as opposed to drinking plain orange juice) were found to consume about 20% more food during the meal. (Appetite 2015;89:77-83)

In another study, women drinking red wine at least once per week were 16% less likely to get diabetes than those women who didn't drink regularly. When researchers in that study looked at other alcoholic drinks, such as beer and spirits, they found similar results. (J Nutr 2006;136:3039-3045) This was confirmed in a second study showing that women who drank about 24 grams of alcohol per day (the equivalent of about 2 glasses of wine or beer) were 40% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those women who never drank alcohol. Men who drank 22 grams per day reduced their risk by only 13%, however, compared to those who never drank. This comes with an important finding that consuming more than about 50 grams per day (for women: 4 glasses of wine or beer) or 60 grams per day (for men: 4 1/2 beers) doubled their risk of type 2 diabetes. (Diabetes Care 32:2123-2132,2009)

It may be the antioxidants in wine that offer benefits beyond just grapes or grape juice. One study had a group drank 400 ml of wine each day while avoiding grapes and grape products. The other group avoided alcohol of all kinds, grapes and grape products for two weeks. For the following two weeks all of the volunteers returned to their normal diets in what is known as a "washout period." In the next two weeks the groups switched. Blood tests showed that those who drank the red wine each day had higher levels of antioxidants in their bloodstream and decreased levels of a substance used to measure the damage that free radicals do to cells. In theory, older volunteers would see greater benefits from the antioxidants in red wine, but that was not the case. The positive effects of drinking red wine was about the same regardless of age. (Nutrition Journal, 2007; 6:27)

It does appear that wine may be the healthier choice over beer or spirits. Researchers in Spain recruited 20 healthy men between the ages of 25 and 50 to participate in a crossover study comparing cava (a sparkling wine containing a medium level of polyphenols) to gin (practically no polyphenols). (J Nutr 2007;137:2279-2284) Each man consumed a specified amount of wine daily for a month, then switched to gin for a month, with a two-week period of abstaining from alcohol before and after each month of alcohol consumption. The subjects were directed to refrain from foods with high levels of polyphenols (such as onions, virgin olive oil, and teas) but were given an otherwise Mediterranean-style diet designed to maintain their weight throughout the study.

The scientists performed blood tests on the subjects at the beginning and end of each period of alcohol consumption and found that although both gin and sparkling wine helped reduce the biomarkers of inflammation that indicate artherosclerosis, the effects of cava consumption were significantly greater than those seen for gin.

Even though cava is a white wine, the speculation is that the antioxidants in wine, especially red wine, offer protection from heart disease. Research on the substance resveratrol has grown out of this. In spite of some believing that this antioxidant is the miracle cure for everything, we don't really know exactly why red wine or drinking alcohol reduces the risk of heart disease. It may be that moderate daily consumption increases the HDL (good) cholesterol and reduces the LDL (bad) cholesterol. It is clear that this isn't true of binge drinking, though. Saving up those 2 drinks a day and having 14 on the weekends has been shown to be more harmful than not drinking at all. 

All of this said, it is important to know that even though alcohol can help us live longer, there is a slight increase (just under 1%) in the risk of gastro-esophageal (stomach and intestine) cancers. The conclusion is that the benefit of longevity generally outweighs the risk. 

What makes up a drink? This depends on what you are drinking. There's a difference between the amount of alcohol in each serving of wine, beer or spirits. Most research uses the measure of a "drink" as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1 -1.2 ounces of liquor. Keep in mind, however, that that alcohol contains calories. There's about 125 calories in a five ounce glass of wine, 150 calories in each 12 ounce can of beer and around 75 calories in a fluid ounce of spirits, such as whiskey or vodka.

I don't tell my patients who don't drink to start drinking. But for those who do drink, I caution them to imbibe in moderation and to do as folks who live around the Mediterranean do: have a glass of wine or two with dinner.