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Health effects of moderate drinking still unclear

Can't imagine ending your day without a glass of merlot or a perfectly poured Guinness? That cocktail may even make you feel virtuous, given the studies linking moderate alcohol consumption with a healthy lifestyle.

The problem, as reported by the New York Times this week, is that nobody has ever proved that moderate drinking leads to health, just that the two often go together. This could be because moderate drinkers tend to do a lot of healthy things — such as exercise, eat well and enjoy good health insurance. Abstainers tend statistically to be less affluent than moderate drinkers, and that in itself is a health risk factor.

Doctors agree that some people should never drink, due to health problems that alcohol may worsen or potential addiction. So if you don't drink now, you shouldn't start just because you think it's healthy.

"The bottom line is there has not been a single study done on moderate alcohol consumption and mortality outcomes that is a 'gold standard' kind of study'' like those to approve new drugs, Dr. Tim Naimi, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the New York Times.

We checked with several Tampa Bay area physicians to see what they tell their patients. All endorse moderation — no more than one drink a day for women, two for men.

Dr. Hugo Navarte, with the University of South Florida Department of Internal Medicine, tells his patients moderate drinking can be healthy, particularly for the heart, as long as you don't have problems such as liver disease. But "you can't save up a week's worth of drinks and have them all at one time on the weekend." Navarte doesn't drink every day, and tries to stay within the recommended limits. "Truth is, when you're out with friends or at a sporting event it's easy to drink more than that."
Dr. Mary Lien, a dermatologist at the University of South Florida, warns patients that drinking to excess eventually shows up on your face, in the form of red spider veins, bright red flushing and even an enlarged, disfigured nose. "Think W. C. Fields," she says. Lien says she doesn't drink. "I'm too sensitive to alcohol."
Dr. Paul Phillips, a cardiologist at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, was reached at a wine tasting in Oregon where he was sipping a Cristom Vineyards pinot noir. "I spend a good portion of my day telling people what they can't do, but I tell them it is okay to drink a glass of wine," he said. The exception is if they have severe heart disease or heart rhythm problems. Phillips drinks a glass or two daily, usually red.
Dr. Michael Franklin, a neurologist with St. Anthony's Medical Group, says a drink or two a day can protect against stroke. However, he said, "You would be surprised at how many people don't realize beer is alcohol. And they think it's okay to drink a six-pack a day. It's not okay. Drinking that much puts you at high risk for stroke and cerebral hemorrhage." As for Franklin? "My migraines are under control,'' he said. "I have no desire to drink.''
Nagi Kumar, director of nutrition research at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, tells patients to enjoy a glass of wine a day, the redder the better. It contains resveratrol, which looks promising for preventing heart disease and fighting Type 2 diabetes. Kumar only drinks wine on weekends. Because of the roughly 300-calorie investment in a large glass, she's selective: "I don't drink cheap wines."

Irene Maher, Times staff writer

Health effects of moderate drinking still unclear 06/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 9:54am]
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