PEOPLE WHO ENJOY A GLASS OF WINE may take comfort in reports that drinking at low to moderate levels may be good for your heart. But a recent analysis of alcohol use in the Global Burden of Disease Study suggests that there is no sweet spot for the number of drinks that are beneficial. “The safest level of drinking is none,” it concludes.

Like previous studies, the analysis finds that drinking at low levels protects against coronary heart disease. But the increased risk of cancer that comes with drinking “completely dwarfed the protective effects,” says one of the study’s authors, Max Griswold, who researches the epidemiology and policy of behavioral risk factors to health at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California.

Drinking increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, liver, breast, colon and rectum. “Researchers are still figuring out how alcohol causes some cancers, not others,” says Jane Henley, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta who works in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. “What we know for sure is that alcohol use is linked with cancer, and that this risk increases with the number of drinks. But the flip side of this is that the less you drink, the lower your risk.”

A Safer Drink

Non-alcoholic beverages can help minimize your risk.

The more you drink, the higher your cancer risk. Max Griswold, who researches behavioral risks and health at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, suggests the mocktail, or booze-free cocktail, as an alternative to alcohol. “That’s what I’ll have sometimes if I’m out with friends or colleagues and I’ve had my one drink and I want to still be a part of the party but not consume alcohol,” he says.

Shirley Temple

  • 1 cup lemon-lime soda
  • 1½ tablespoons grenadine
  • Maraschino cherries for garnish, if desired

Fill glass halfway with ice cubes and pour soda over. Top off with grenadine.

Serve with maraschino cherries, if using.

Reprinted with permission from the American Institute for Cancer Research.

“I think, as a population, we should all just consider drinking less,” says Griswold. “Just thinking, ‘Oh yeah, a glass of wine a day is good for my heart,’ I think is too naive a perspective to take.”

Henley recommends that people follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a U.S. Department of Agriculture publication, which suggests limits of one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. It also states that people who don’t drink should not start for any reason. 

But what if drinking wine isn’t so much for the heart as for the soul? What about quality of life? Griswold suggests people talk with their doctors about their risks from drinking, taking into account their personal health histories. “Everyone needs to make their own decision on what level of risk they are willing to take on,” says Griswold.