You probably try to do some things to bring down your risk for cancer down the road, like eating healthy, exercising, and avoiding toxic chemicals and sugar. But do you think about drinking alcohol as a cancer-causing habit?
In a new large study published in PLOS Medicine, researchers asked more than 99,000 older adults about their drinking habits over nine years. The key finding: Knocking back just two or three glasses of booze a day increases your risk for cancer.
That’s perhaps news to you, since some 70 percent of Americans don’t realize their drinking habits could contribute to their cancer risk, according to a survey conducted by the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
But roughly 5 to 6 percent of new cancers or cancer deaths worldwide are directly tied to alcohol use. For perspective, in the United States, about 19 percent of new cancer cases are linked to smoking and up to 9.5 percent to obesity.
Interestingly, though, the new PLOS Medicine study reports that sipping on one or two drinks per day isn’t that bad. Still, keeping it to three drinks a week is healthiest.
Among their 99,000+ study participants, light drinkers — those who consumed one to three drinks per week — were at the lowest risk for developing cancer and dying prematurely.
In fact, light drinkers had a lower risk for cancer than people who completely abstained.
If you’re confused by the amount of information out there on how much alcohol to include in your weekly indulgence, we’re spelling it out for you below.
So, is one drink better than none?
Light drinkers being at the lowest risk for cancer sounds like great news for those of us who love our nightly vino. But Noelle LoConte, MD, oncologist at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, is quick to point out that a reduced risk doesn’t equal zero risk.
“A small amount of drinking may help your heart and only slightly increases your cancer risk, so those people appear ‘healthier.’ But even light alcohol consumption in no way protects you from cancer,” LoConte clarifies.
The study authors themselves point out that their findings don’t mean people who don’t drink should start a nightcap habit. These nondrinkers might have a higher disease risk than light drinkers because medical reasons keep them from drinking to start with. Or they’re recovering from alcohol use disorder and have already done damage to their systems, adds LoConte, who wasn’t part of the study.
But nevertheless, this study does confirm that if you enjoy a glass of red or a beer with your buds, it’s not going to totally tank your health — provided you stick to what docs consider healthy (or moderate or light). Here’s what we know:
The benefits of booze
The most prolific body of research, though, is around protecting your heart. A 2015 study review confirms light drinking might actually help protect against coronary artery disease, which contributes to stroke and heart failure.
Alcohol benefits your heart by reducing inflammation, the hardening and narrowing of your arteries, and the formation of blood clots — all factors associated with coronary artery disease, explains Sandra Gonzalez, PhD, instructor in the department of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
But, as research in BMC Medicine points out, the benefit only holds for those who stick to moderate drinking and don’t go overboard.
Let’s define healthy
In order for alcohol use to be considered low-risk and healthy, you have to stay within or under both the recommended daily and weekly limits, Gonzalez adds.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate alcohol consumption as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
We know — that seriously changes your level of excitement for book club and wine night.
And, unfortunately, you can’t choose a weekly count over the daily. “You can’t ‘batch’ your drinks. Not drinking anything for five days so you can have six on Saturday. It’s zero or one, or zero or two per day, period,” says LoConte.
More drinks than that — specifically, more than four or five for women and men, respectively, usually within two hours — is considered binge drinking.
Regularly knocking ’em back comes with a whole laundry list of health risks like higher risk for heart disease, stroke, liver disease, alcohol use disorder, and, as that new study highlighted, cancer and premature death.
But some research reports that even just one night of overdoing it can cause bacteria to leak from your gut and increase levels of toxins in your blood. This can affect your immune system and actually make you sick.
Ladies, we know it’s unfair men are allotted one more glass a night. The recommendations for men and women are different because, well, physiologically we’re different. “Some of it’s based on body size, but it’s more complicated than that. For example, men generally weigh more than women and have less water in their bodies. As a result, alcohol in a woman’s body is less diluted, creating greater exposure to the toxic effect of alcohol and its byproducts,” Gonzalez explains.
Tricks for drinking a healthy amount
- Consuming more than two to three drinks per day ups your risk for cancer and heart problems.
- To keep your cancer risk low, cap yourself at one drink per day for women and two for men. Stick to the daily limit. Just because you didn’t drink yesterday doesn’t mean you get two to four drinks today.
- One drink is considered to be 12 ounces of regular beer, 1.5 ounces of liquor, or 5 ounces of wine.
What’s the healthiest way to spend your one drink?
We’ve long heard the horn tooted for wine’s health benefits but many studies suggest beer may actually be just beneficial. And what’s healthiest is really less about the type of alcohol and more about how much you’re consuming, says Gonzalez.
The most important thing to remember here: One serving size is 14 grams of pure alcohol. That’s:
- 12 ounces of regular beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor
And we’d bet money what you think is one glass of wine — about half full, right? — is way more than either of these doctors would consider one glass of wine.
“People are often surprised when we describe what a standard drink actually is. Many times, they’re being served drinks that exceed standard measures at restaurants, bars, or at home,” says Gonzalez.
In fact, a 2017 study in the BMJ reports the size of the average wine glass has nearly doubled in size in the past 25 years, which means our 2018 half-full pour is more like 7 to 10 ounces than 5.
Luckily beer comes in a set size with the amount right on the label. But when drinking wine and liquor, you should be measuring, Gonzalez adds.
“It’s portion control applied to alcohol,” LoConte points out.
Tricks for drinking less without even noticing
Consider buying wine glasses that look more like what your grandmother would sip out of and less like what Olivia Pope guzzles from. Another study found even if you measure out a five-ounce pour, the bigger the glass, the more likely you are to have a second.
Another thing that can help you cut back: Stretch that seemingly tiny amount of alcohol further.
“One strategy to drink less and enjoy your one glass more is to make your drink last longer by turning it into a cocktail,” says Autumn Bates, a certified clinical nutritionist and recipe developer based in Los Angeles. That way, you’ll have a full glass to savor and feel less deprived and in need of another.
Bates’ go to: Using a sugar-free effervescent sparkling water as a base, muddle in fresh herbs (such as mint, lavender, or rosemary), and top with 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor of your choice. If you need a little more flavor or sweetness, add a splash of freshly squeezed juice.
Tricks for drinking a healthy amount
- Be sure to measure out that booze, especially wine.
- Buy smaller wine glasses. Larger ones up your chances of drinking more.
- Mix in sparkling water to make your drink last longer.
Need some starter ideas? Here are three of Bates’ favorite cocktails.
Strawberry Mint Sangria
Combine 1 bottle of red wine, 2 sliced limes, 1/2 cup fresh mint, and 2 cups halved strawberries. Allow this mixture to sit in the fridge for at least 6 hours or overnight. Split the pitcher among six wine glasses (or pour one-sixth of the pitcher for a single serving) and top each with 3 oz. sparkling water.
Combine 1 oz. tequila, 1/4 cup freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, juice of 1/2 lime, and 3 oz. sparkling water in a glass filled with ice. Garnish with lime and grapefruit wedges.
Classic Italian Spritz
Combine 3.5 oz. prosecco, 1.5 oz. Aperol, juice of 1/2 lime, and 3 oz. sparkling water in a wine glass filled with ice. Garnish with a lime peel if you’d like.
Rachael Schultz is a freelance writer who focuses primarily on why our bodies and brains work the way they do, and how we can optimize both (without losing our sanity). She’s worked on staff at Shape and Men’s Health and contributes regularly to a slew of national health and fitness publications. She’s most passionate about hiking, traveling, mindfulness, cooking, and really, really good coffee. You can find her work at rachael-schultz.com.