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Moderate Alcohol Consumption Benefits Heart, US Government Says - 2004-06-16

The U.S. government has determined that moderate alcohol consumption has heart healthy benefits. The conclusion is based on an exhaustive review of studies looking at the effects of drinking on human health.

Moderate alcohol consumption, no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks for men, does not cause harm and appears to provide protection against cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, with both beer and wine having the same level of benefit.

The finding is based on a thorough review of dozens of studies on the subject by government staff at the U.S. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The conclusion that moderate drinking has heart healthy benefits will be included in a new set of dietary guidelines to be issued by the U.S. government in 2005.

National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Branch Chief for Strategic Planning Lorraine Gunzerath says, obviously, pregnant women, those operating cars, alcoholics or those with a family history of alcoholism should steer clear of the government recommendation.

She also says the recommendation is in no way an endorsement that people in general should start drinking.

"People tend to think of the guidelines as recommended levels of intake. You should have 30 percent carbohydrates and so on," she says. "What we are saying is that this is moderate alcohol use that we are defining. It should not be construed as healthy or required alcohol use. So, that if one is not a drinker, we are not saying that you have to start."

It is still unclear whether someone who begins drinking at an earlier age, say 21, derives the same health benefits as an individual who starts in their 40s.

The government report also notes that data show a drink per day increases a woman's risk of breast cancer by 10 percent. But Dr. Gunzerath says people with that, and other ailments, should not be discouraged from having a daily drink.

"If you are a moderate drinker, as we define it with the one to two per day, when you have developed health problems, you do not have to give that up. Chances are it is not going to make much difference in you risk profile one way or the other," she says.

Dr. Gunzerath says one surprising finding was uncovered: moderate alcohol consumption may actually benefit people with adult onset diabetes.

The report cites studies that conclude that alcohol appears to improve the absorption of insulin, a hormone the body uses to metabolize food. Insulin metabolism is defective in diabetics.