Let’s Raise a Toast to Health

Cheers to the holidays! But before we get carried away, here are some tips on holiday drinking and health.

You may have heard that drinking alcohol can benefit your heart. However, alcohol can also damage your heart. The key is moderation—both during the holidays and throughout the year.

Most experts agree that you should not start drinking just for the health benefits, and, if you do drink, do so in small doses. Here’s some advice from Jonathan Fong, MD, a cardiovascular, thoracic and vascular surgeon with the Venice-Ocala Heart Institute in Venice, Florida.

“The possible heart benefits of alcohol primarily have to do with its effect on atherosclerosis,” Dr. Fong says. “This condition occurs when cholesterol deposits build up in the arteries, potentially leading to a heart attack. Alcohol—in moderation—may decrease the chances of developing this disease.”

Does the Kind of Alcohol Matter?

You may have heard that red wine can help prevent heart disease . This is true of all forms of alcohol, but red wine has one additional ingredient that may give it the edge as your beverage of choice. The antioxidant resveratrol comes from the grape skins used to make wine and helps protect the lining of the heart’s bloodvessels. Because red wine is fermented with these skins longer than white wine, red wine contains more of this healthy ingredient, Dr. Fong explains.

New research, however, suggests that white wine may provide the same heart-healing benefits as red because the pulp of the grapes used can be just as heart-healthy as the skin.

“But before you pop that cork, it is important to know that you can get the same antioxidant benefits from fresh grapes or grape juice. So, for those who do not currently drink alcohol, these may be a better option for getting heart-healthy resveratrol,” Dr. Fong adds.

Some studies suggest the folate in beer may help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. When it comes to hard liquor, a French study found it does help reduce bad cholesterol, but not as much as red wine, and it can cause other unfavorable side effects.

So, before enjoying a few drinks to possibly benefit your heart, remember that restraint is key. “Healthy ‘doses’ of alcohol are small ones and only beneficial for some—not all—people,” says Dr. Fong. “And, these amounts differ between men and women.”

How Much Is Healthy?

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), moderate drinking for healthy women means no more than one standard drink per day, and for men, no more than two glasses per day. That doesn’t mean a tumbler filled with alcohol or a giant balloon wine glass filled to the brim. And keep in mind that the alcohol content of different types of beer, wine and distilled spirits can vary substantially.

A standard drink contains about 14 grams of alcohol (0.6 fluid ounces or 1.2 tablespoons), which is typically equivalent to:

12 ounces of beer or wine cooler

4-5 ounces of wine

1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor

1 ounce of 100-proof liquor

This is intended to measure the amount consumed on a single day and does not represent an average over several days. (In other words, if you don’t drink all week and then down seven drinks at a holiday party, it’s not the same as having one drink a day.)

“Strictly staying within these guidelines is the only way to gain any heart-healthy rewards,” Dr. Fong says. Also, if you have a chronic health condition or take certain medications, you may have increased risks from drinking alcohol. Women are more vulnerable than men to certain alcohol-related health problems such as organ damage, trauma and relationship problems.

Remember, drinking alcohol won’t magically improve health. Many lifestyle changes have proven to be more beneficial than alcohol consumption in promoting heart health: exercise every day and eat a low-fat, low-sodium diet.

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