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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 10:35 GMT
Can bitter get you fitter?
Have a drink. Or perhaps it's better not to. Or perhaps you should...
First the good news - moderate drinking is good for you. Now the bad news - oh no it isn't. BBC News Online's Chris Horrie reports.

Health experts have been confounding the nation with contradictory alcohol advice in the run up to the annual festive booze binge.

On Sunday the UK's Stroke Association cheered the nation's drinkers by saying that quaffing "small quantities" of alcohol could reduce the risk of suffering a stroke.

14 pints is almost certainly bad for you
There followed encouraging news from researchers at the Barts and the London School of Medicine.

They claimed to have discovered a chemical ingredient in red wine which helped prevent heart disease, especially in middle-aged men.

And last month yet more researchers claimed that "moderate intake" of booze could help women become pregnant...

... but mainly because while under the influence they tended to have sex more often and take less care over contraception.

Now a team from the Royal Free Medical School has swung the other way, saying that while there was some sense in the heart disease claims, the overall effect of increased drinking could be catastrophic.

Seasonal alcohol advice is thus turning into something like a national pantomime performance.

A moderate alcohol intake may correlate with a higher frequency of intercourse

Danish health researcher Mette Juhl

A figurative Widow Twankie keeps appearing on the stage, theatrically downing a glass of wine and pronouncing: "Ah! That was good for me, that was!"

A chorus of doctors, pantomime horses, Buttons, etc, bellows: "Oh no it was wasn't!"

The audience then yells: "Oh yes it was!" And so on.

The roots of controversy go back at least ten years when authorities in the US allowed Californian wine makers to mention the supposed health benefits of red wine drinking on labels.

A little of what you fancy ....
It was based on solid research that a moderate intake of red wine was good for the hearts and blood vessels of older people.


There was no indication, however, that the same benefit could be derived from consumption of alcopops or anti-freeze.

Nevertheless, the "drink yourself fitter" implication evidently caught people's imaginations on both sides of the Atlantic.

By December 1998 a huge national survey in the UK showed that more than half the population thought that moderate (meaning, in many cases, "heavy") drinking was a good thing health-wise.


Only 2% knew that the health benefit applied only to a small minority threatened with clogged arteries.

The survey was a monument to wishful thinking and the famously rose-tinted vision enjoyed by the frequently sozzled.

Nobody at all appeared to be aware that red wine could not even help members of high risk heart failure groups unless they also stopped eating lard and gave up smoking as well.

The Health Education Authority issued a leaflet.


More half-understood Chinese whispers attached to the subject this summer when researchers proved the apparently obvious fact that getting a drink habit early in life led to more and worse type of disease.

youths in a pub
In the pub
The news was finessed in booze-addled middle-aged brains into the idea that it was not only safe but a positive health benefit to drink once you had survived past 40.

The message, then, seems to be that lots of drinking is almost certainly very bad for you. Some drinking can also be bad for you. But some drinking can in some circumstances be quite good for you. Unless it's bad for you.

Trebles all round! Perhaps.

See also:

25 Jun 99 | Health
Alcohol benefits debunked
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