Drinking red wine regularly is bad for your health, according to new official guidelines.
But in the first shake-up of UK alcohol guidelines in 20 years, experts are warning bluntly that no level of regular drinking is without risks. Back in 1995, the guidance said that drinking small amounts of alcohol, especially red wine, could cut heart disease for men over 40 and post-menopausal women.
Yet the new rules, unveiled on Friday by chief medical officer Sally Davies, state that “the evidence supporting protective effects today is now weaker than it was at the time of the 1995 report”. It says:
Taking this into account alongside all the known acute and chronic risks to health from drinking even at low levels, supports the conclusion of the group that there is no justification for recommending drinking on health grounds, nor for starting drinking for health reasons.
The report found that any heart health benefits from alcohol are only relevant to women aged 55 or older.
On the whole, the new guidelines aren’t good news for those who enjoy a drink. Here’s what they say:
- Don’t drink more than 14 units per week – that’s for both men and women. Previously men were advised to drink no more than 21 units.
- Have several drink-free days a week.
- If you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy, don’t drink at all. Previous guidance suggested it was safe to drink up to four units a week.
- Don’t binge-drink – you will “increase your risk of death from long-term illnesses and from accidents and injuries”.
- If you do want to limit the health risks from a single drinking session, you should drink more slowly, alternate drinks with water, avoid “risky places and activities” – and consume less alcohol.
- The risk of developing cancer increases with any amount you drink on a regular basis.
Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, said many people had been “seduced into drinking more than they should in the belief that alcohol protects them from heart disease”.
He added: “This apparent ‘protection’ is now open to question and, with the other evidence demonstrating even small amounts increase other health risks including but not limited to weight gain and cancers, then it’s clear that for many the less alcohol drunk the better.”
John Holmes, senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield, said the so-called health benefits of alcohol may have been “substantially overestimated”.
He said any such benefit was “small, associated with very low levels of alcohol consumption and only likely to benefit specific groups in the population even if it was genuine”.
The Alcohol Research charity said the new guidelines took a “conservative view” of the possible benefits of drinking.
James Nicholls, director of research and policy development, said: “This question is still unresolved in the research and there is not much detail on how the claim that moderate drinking only reduces risk of heart disease among women over 55 remains was arrived at.
“However, the guidelines do reflect the fact that any protective effect is likely to be cancelled out by any heavy drinking – even on a single occasion – and that the possible protective effects among older drinkers need to be balanced against the new evidence on cancer risks, which are spread more widely across the population.”