heart conscious alchohol drinker stares at glass of whiskey

Is drinking alcohol actually good for your heart health?

Have you heard: Drinking alcohol in moderation is actually good for you! Let the parties begin, right?

That’s what a wave of breathless internet headlines would have you believe, anyway, but let’s pump the brakes for a moment. In reality, health care experts don’t want anyone to start drinking for the sake of the health benefits. There are alternatives for achieving those health benefits that carry less risk for negative side effects.

What’s all the hype about?

It is true that studies have found alcohol can help raise your “good cholesterol,” known as HDL. Plus, red wine is fairly rich in flavonoids, which are nutrients that can positively impact skin protection, brain function, blood sugar and blood pressure regulation, as well as other antioxidants, which protect the cells in your body from damage.

Mary Vojta, a clinical dietitian, and Timir Baman, MD, a cardiology specialist with OSF HealthCare Cardiovascular Institute, said those are true health benefits, but there are better ways to get those same benefits and avoid the negative impacts of drinking alcohol.

Those headlines about drinking alcohol to improve your health may grab your attention, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Moderation is key

Before you think you have a medically proven hall pass to drink to excess at your weekend tailgate, there are some things you should know.

“Alcohol, in general, will raise your good cholesterol slightly, but it can also increase your stroke risk, raise your blood pressure and even damage your liver,” Dr. Baman said.

The studies about the health benefits of alcohol specifically refer to the benefits that can be had from drinking in MODERATION. What does that mean? Specifically, a moderate serving of alcohol is one drink a day for women and two drinks per day for men. And that serving size is 12 ounces for beer, four or five ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor.

So if you wish to enjoy alcohol at a happy hour or a tailgate party, those are the limits at which you may see those minor health benefits.

Weighing the benefits

concord grapes on a tableIf you’re someone just looking for some relatively simple ways to improve your health, though, you’d do better to avoid alcohol all together.

On average just 4-5 ounces of wine contains 80-100 calories and people tend to pour themselves more than that per glass, according to Vojta. A 12-ounce beer can contain more than 170 calories. Liquor comes in at 65-85 calories an ounce, depending on the proof, she added.

“Do you really want those calories just to raise the HDL?” Vojta asked. “Exercise and weight loss will help raise the HDL and prevent those unwanted calories or pounds from the alcohol and help spare you from that ‘middle tire.’

“If you want to get the benefit of the flavonoids and antioxidants found in red wine, but don’t want the alcohol, drink grape juice, or eat red grapes, berries or a few peanuts instead. If you do choose to drink, make sure you speak with your doctor first to make sure you’re healthy enough to handle alcohol, and that it won’t cause any bad reactions with medications you’re taking.”

Last Updated: May 2, 2023

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About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and was a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

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Categories: Diet & Exercise, Heart Health