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Curious Reads: "I Never Touch the Stuff"
Booze is bad, even that glass of red wine with dinner, says science.
#1 Today’s “top of the fold” story is the flip flop from “booze is good for you!” to booze is BAD.
That is, in the 1990s, we thought red wine with dinner would help us live longer. “Like the French who nightly drink a glass!” we said. But recent research has revealed the opposite: even a sip of alcohol a week puts drinkers at higher risk for cancer. And now health agencies are changing their minds about alcohol.
Read Slate reporter Tim Requarth’s accounting of how the flip flop happened in both directions.
The highlights of the article:
There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine with dinner every night, right?
[We used to think] “the evidence in the mid-’90s [was] incontrovertible, whether you liked it or not. And boy, none of the people who were concerned about the effects of alcohol on society liked that research. But they couldn’t find anything wrong with it at the time. And so, there it was; it had to be dealt with. And it got into the dietary guidelines.”
The governmental organizations who offer food recommendations shifted their recommendations to reflect the new positive outlook for alcohol. One researcher even encouraged doctors to prescribe alcohol to their nondrinking patients for the sake of heart health.
Physicians were also changing their tunes. One influential alcohol researcher, R. Curtis Ellison—who made a cameo on that infamous 60 Minutes episode about the French paradox—wrote in Wine Spectator in 1998, “You should consume alcohol on a regular basis, perhaps daily. Some might even say that it is dangerous to go more than 24 hours without a drink.”
…[But] at least one researcher had doubts all along.
And then, over the past 25 years, the research mounted too high to ignore: alcohol caused cancer. Even for light drinkers, even a sip meant the risk for cancer increased dramatically. And now new guidlines have come out this year that reverse the former “party attitude” toward drinking.
According to new guidelines released in recent months by the World Health Organization, the World Heart Federation, and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction, the safest level of drinking is—brace yourself—not a single drop.
“Mainstream scientific opinion has flipped,” said Tim Stockwell, a professor at the University of Victoria who was on the expert panel that rewrote Canada’s guidance on alcohol and health.
Cancer risk increases infinitesimally with each sip, in part because alcohol is metabolically converted into acetaldehyde, which damages DNA.
One team of scientists computed a “cigarette-equivalent of population cancer harm” and found that in terms of lifetime cancer risk, drinking a bottle of wine a week is like, for men, smoking five cigarettes or, for women, 10 cigarettes a week.
“Your body isn’t just the heart. We shouldn’t give people a known carcinogen to help their cardiovascular health.”
This flip flopping of recommendations is a diet trend trope by now. Count on it: whatever diet you’re on today, nutritionists will inevitably change their minds about its actual health benefits later on.
Scientists have built the ability to change our thinking on any topic into our scientific systems on purpose because science is built on a foundation of experimentation and hypothesis. When the research tells us we got it wrong, then we can and should shift our behaviors and recommendations. That’s the right method.
However, what this essay points out is the great effort of all humans involved to resist change in the case of alcohol.
I find this fact endlessly interesting, how we humans habitually resist the kind of change we don’t like. It’s in our natures. Even when our minds protest, when the facts prove we’re at fault, even when our committments tell us otherwise, we still resist change.
This is exactly what happened with research about alcohol’s healthiness (or not). When the research said alcohol actually made us healthier, welp, we embraced it like a long-lost relative.
But when facts disproved this dearly-held belief? When so much research contradicted what we, societally, had decided was true—that the French ate the best and we wanted to emulate them, especially in their drinking habits?
Then all of us, including most scientists, tried to quash the unwanted results.
Of course, the alcohol industry looks particularly guilty in this account. Like Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol did everything it could to suppress any scientific results that might have reduced demand for its products. (Yikes.)
Yet the tsunami of research couldn’t be ignored forever and once again, the tide has shifted.
By the way, I agree that this research is a bummer. I personally drink moderately several times a week with dinner and I enjoy it greatly. Of course, us humans would like alcohol to be the panacea to all our societal ills, myself included.
But now we know the truth. Or at least we’re inching closer to the truth about something.
And the fact that our society can still swing in the direction of truth, that’s hopeful, heartening, even a reason for celebration for me… just a celebration without the booze, I suppose. ;-) Because of science?
Thanks for reading, my friends. Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
Tell me: Does the evidence about alcohol’s goodness or badness sway whether you’ll drink or not? Do you drink now? Why or why not?
ALSO this article did not go into the prohibitionist bent of religious folks which would be an interesting angle. Personally, I approach most fundamentalist movements the same way: moderation is my mantra. So I’ll keep drinking alcohol… moderately. :O)
More Curious Reads
#2 Afrofuturist architect Diébédo Francis Kéré is encouraging his peers to stop copying the West’s building plans.
“I’m tired of people seeing uniqueness as something that’s done in the West. It’s making our world poor if we’re just Eurocentric in our focus. If you just wait for the West to inspire, to create, and to do good in tech, what’s your added value to the world?”—Wired Magazine
And Kéré’s designs, which focus on local materials, are truly inspirational. —Dezeen
#3 A reflection on one of the most famous American poems (the “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams):
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
#4 Dads matter when we’re talking about eating disorders. The only problem is, nutrition research has left them out.—The Atlantic
#5 AI aims to be the first robo celebrity worship leader on the internet. What could go wrong?—Christianity Today
Just for Fun…
I couldn’t stop watching SpaceX astronaut Hayley Areceneaux chase pizza slices around the space shuttle.
(It’s an instagram reel—not embedded—so you gotta click to watch it.)