The idea that it does came from decades of observational studies that showed lowish levels of drinking correlating with lower heart disease rates. But, as we all know from being human, moderate drinkers are different from heavy drinkers, and from nondrinkers, in other ways as well. Ways that observational research has a tough time correcting for.
Moderate drinking, it seems, is a marker for the ability to be moderate, because it correlates with lower levels of many bad things. Heart disease, but also gallstones. Hearing loss. The common cold. And observational research still shows the same-old, same-old J-shaped curve for bad outcomes, with the lowest levels of risk coming not at the lowest levels of drinking but at some slightly higher level. But that “slightly higher level” is pretty low. Just last year, British medical journal the Lancet published a huge study, across 204 countries, that put the optimal level of alcohol consumption at about four grams per day, less than one-third of a standard drink in the United States (which contains roughly 14 grams).
Still, no-alcohol recommendations have gone mainstream. Per the Geneva-based World Heart Federation: “Contrary to popular opinion, alcohol is not good for the heart. … There are no safe recommended levels of alcohol consumption — those who drink are advised to reduce their consumption for overall health.”
The World Health Organization says unequivocally that “there is no safe amount.” The American Cancer Society says, “it is best not to drink alcohol.” Don’t get me wrong! I reserve the right to disagree with mainstream health organizations (ahem … artificial sweeteners … ahem). But in this case, I have come around to the reluctant view that they are correct.
I’m not giving alcohol up altogether — partly because although moderate drinking is definitely not protective, it’s still not up there with texting and driving — but I am trying to drink less. This doesn’t come easy, as wine is something my husband and I enjoy, and opening a bottle is part of what we do most nights when we close the computers and start making dinner.
And that’s where the good news kicks in.
But I have one more thing to say about the bad news before we go there.
Let’s consider why we thought alcohol was protective for so long. It’s the same reason we get conflicting advice on other nutritional questions: dietary cholesterol and saturated fat are two biggies, but experts disagree on eating a lot of things — meat, grains, ultraprocessed foods, and, yes, artificial sweeteners — and much of the evidence comes from the same kind of studies that told us alcohol was protective. Those studies follow large groups of people for a long time and then draw connections between what they eat and the diseases they get.
The problem is that, unless the connection is very obvious, it’s hard to tease out. People don’t remember what they ate yesterday, let alone last year (and many studies ask for full-year recall). People who eat in one way are different from people who eat in another. There’s a lot of noise to filter out before you get to a signal.
Defenders of those studies understand the shortcomings, but they often argue that this is the best way we have to study this issue, because we can’t do controlled trials that last long enough or have enough people. And this is true!
But is that tool good enough?
Absent that tool, we would have to live with nutritional uncertainty and resign ourselves to the fact that eating a wide variety of whole-ish foods we enjoy is the best we can do. Does what we’ve learned from those studies improve on that?
If we’re trying to suss out the value of the field, we have to weigh the wins against the losses. And there are wins! Trans fats have been largely removed from our food in large part because of nutritional epidemiology — but not before we were told that margarine was better than butter. And epidemiological research helped establish alcohol as a carcinogen — but we were told that some drinking was good for us.
There’s another downside, possibly more important. The changing headlines on trans fats, and alcohol, and all those other things, have left people confused and disempowered. How can nonexperts figure out what to eat when the experts can’t agree? (Hint: Eat a wide variety of whole-ish foods you enjoy.)
How many people simply threw up their hands in frustration and stopped paying attention?
Speaking of paying attention, you have patiently endured my polemic to get to the good news. We’re finally there and it’s — drumroll, please — nonalcoholic beer.
My husband, Kevin, and I decided to stop drinking for a month. Other people who did this picked January, but we figured February had fewer days so we went with that. I had seen a couple articles, and some Twitter talk, about the new, better nonalcoholic beers, so we stocked up.
I was very surprised at how good they were.
6 nonalcoholic cocktails for Dry January and beyond
Okay, they weren’t all good. I had to kiss some frogs — weird flavors, bitterness in the wrong places, insipidity. But there were several that were absolutely persuasive beer experiences, and my hands-down favorite was the Run Wild IPA from Athletic Brewing. Bitterness in the right place, with a full beery back.
I wondered how on Earth they could do that, so I talked with John Walker, Athletic’s co-founder and brewer.
“How on Earth do you do that?”
“We started at the end,” he told me. “What’s my final experience going to be? Then we worked backward from there. We tried to figure out how to respect the ingredients and accentuate their characteristics to replicate a beer experience without ethanol.”
Brewing a nonalcoholic beer (or very slightly alcoholic one — anything under 0.5 percent can bear the name) from scratch is a new thing. According to Walker, earlier NA beers were ordinary beer with the alcohol boiled off. Then came reverse osmosis, a process with overtones of seventh-grade biology, which made another kind of substandard beer.
Only recently have brewers taken the NA segment seriously, and Athletic isn’t the only one. Some of the biggest brands have decent NA versions — I tried Stella Artois Liberte, Heineken 0.0, Coors Edge and Guinness 0. Kevin’s a Guinness drinker, and he found the 0 version virtually indistinguishable. I have a soft spot for classic American beer that dates to a beach-based incident involving oysters, young love and Budweiser long-necks, and I gotta say the Coors was right there.
I also tried varieties from breweries that specialize in nonalcoholic, but I liked the Athletic beers best. My biggest problem was strange, out-of-place flavors that didn’t play well with others. One variety was very pumpkin, one very chocolate. When I asked Walker about that problem, he said the breweries might be “trying to mask the off-characteristics of a flawed process.”
There’s one more advantage to the nonalcoholic kind of beer: It has fewer calories. Most of regular beer’s calories come from the alcohol, which has 7 calories per gram. If a beer contains 14 grams of alcohol, that’s 98 calories, about ⅔ of most beers’ total. The NA beers I sampled ran the gamut from a measly 10 calories (Partake Pale) to a max of about 100 (Sam Adams Just the Haze IPA has 98). In general, the better beers had more calories (Run Wild IPA has 65), but two good low-calorie choices are Athletic Lite, at 25, and that Coors Edge, at 41.
A 41-calorie nonalcoholic beer is, I think, a fitting beverage to toast the alcohol researchers who rained on my parade.