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Is it time to rethink the amount of alcohol we drink?

Dr Sandro Demaio

4 minute read
A woman at a rooftop party eating food off a grazing board

While most of us will have enjoyed a few glasses over the New Year period, the evidence is clear that there is no safe level of drinking. This news may be puzzling; wasn’t a glass of wine meant to be good for your heart and health?

Research shows any alcohol is associated with increased risks of various cancers, heart disease, liver disease and mental illness. According to the Cancer Council, some cancers are more closely linked to alcohol consumption than others. These include mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, breast, bowel and liver cancers.

Two young women focusing on reducing their alcohol intake during an evening at a cocktail bar

But it’s not all doom and gloom. By cutting back or giving up alcohol completely, our bodies are capable of healing much of the damage that may have already occurred. For example, scientists have found that the risk of mouth, throat and oesophagal cancers will reduce over time in those who stop drinking compared to those who continue, as does the risk of cardiovascular and liver disease. The message? If you want to reduce your risk of cancer, drink less, and it’s never too late to slow – or stop.

Current medical advice recommends keeping your alcohol consumption down to no more than two standard drinks per day. If you’re drinking wine, a standard drink is 100 ml, which is roughly what your body can metabolise (or break down) in one hour. However, the average serving size in most bars or restaurants is approximately 1.5 to two times this amount. The result? You may be consuming your two standard drinks in one single “serve”. Similarly, a schooner of beer can be roughly 1.6 standard drinks, and a pint can be up to 2.2. So be careful not to equate standard drinks with glasses, pours or servings.

Another thing we often overlook is the large number of calories in alcoholic drinks. Alcohol is inherently full of energy, containing twice the energy per gram as sugar. This energy is surplus and non-essential to our nutritional needs, so contributes to our widening waistlines.

How many standard drinks are in your usual?

Standard drink infographic

Of Australians aged 15 years and over, three out of four drink alcohol and three million drink at a risky level. With this in mind, it’s good to have a few strategies up our sleeves that we can adopt to minimise harmful effects and protect our long-term health:

  • Be sure to maintain at least three to four alcohol-free days each week; it’s always a great idea to give your body some time-out.
  • If you’re planning a night out, make sure you eat beforehand or have a meal with your drinks. Having food in your stomach will slow down the absorption of alcohol, and likely slow your drinking too.
  • Space out your drinking by alternating each alcoholic drink with a glass of water. This will both minimise your intake and the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
  • Think twice about how you end a hard day, celebrate an exciting win or begin a first date. Go out for a special meal, do some yoga, go to a concert or shout yourself a ticket to the movies. There are many great alternatives to alcohol.
  • Keen to see whether you can cut out the booze for a month? Check out some clever and fun new ways to stay social without the drink. Feb Fast and Dry July are initiatives to help you lose the booze and support a charity at the same time!

Whether you’re concerned about your waistline, cancer risk, general happiness and wellbeing or even your sleep, there are many great reasons to be conscious of how much alcohol you drink. And remember, if you’re struggling with your alcohol intake, always talk to your GP.

For more articles by Dr Sandro Demaio, check out The Check Up’s dedicated section.

Please note: the tips throughout this article serve as broad advice and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

Co-host of the ABC TV series ‘Ask the Doctor’, author of 30 scientific papers and ‘The Doctor’s Diet’ (a cookbook based on science), Dr Sandro Demaio is an Aussie medical doctor and global expert on non-communicable diseases.

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