Wine's Worse for Your Health Than You May Think

Why a few glasses of wine a day are as dangerous as a daily pack of cigarettes.

I love a good glass of wine—and I love two glasses even better. I don’t drink every day, so when I’m out for dinner at a nice restaurant or having a girls’ night in chock with reality TV, you bet I’m going to say, “yes, please” to seconds and, okay, maybe on occasion, thirds. As long as I’m not driving or hungover the next day, is there really any harm? After all, nearly every headline I read touts the benefits of wine. Lots of antioxidants! Good for your heart! Protects against strokes!

Back when I was in my 20s and drank, oh, just a wee bit more, the doctor I was seeing then even credited my red wine habit for my stellar HDL score (It was 89, if you must know). What she forgot to mention is that happy hour is not really meant to be a daily occurrence, like coffee breaks or lunch. And that too much red wine, or any alcohol, can actually raise another kind of cholesterol known as triglycerides, a type of fat in your bloodstream; not to mention increase blood pressure and your risk of heart failure.

Maybe most 20-somethings don’t care about that stuff (I know I may have been guilty of that), but seeing that my uncle and grandfather dropped dead from heart attacks and my other grandfather and dad have had bypass surgery, the link between alcohol consumption and heart problems is not something I take lightly anymore. So I was pretty shaken up the other day when my current doctor gave me news I did not want to hear: I am still drinking too much. I don’t mean to question your expert opinion, doc, I thought, but I’m pretty sure my alcohol consumption averages out to one drink a day. So, how can that be?

Well, before we get into that, maybe first we should mention why, beyond heart risks, you would even care. If you’re even the least bit health-conscious, you probably go out of your way to avoid carcinogens, like pesticides and pollution. And yet, few of us realize that drinking alcohol is one of the biggest known risk factors for certain types of cancer. Just one drink per day boosts your vulnerability to cancer by 10 percent. And, according to oncologist and Kaiser Permanente researcher Dr. Yan Li, PhD., M.D., drinking three glasses a day (four for men) carries the same risk of cancer as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. If that’s not enough, that kind of drinking can also lead to premature aging, which affects not just how young you look, but how well your cells function, too. Talk about buzz kill.

Like me, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, well, I haven’t drank that much since college.” But that’s where you may be mistaken. Our bowls of spaghetti aren’t the only things that have become supersized in the past few decades. An actual serving size of wine is four ounces; for beer, it’s between eight and 12, depending on the alcohol content. That means a pint of microbrew equals two servings. And, if a bartender poured you a four-ounce glass of vino, call me psychic, but you’d probably stiff him on his tip.

After I got my talking to from my doctor, I went home and measured four ounces of water, and then put it in a wine glass. Definitely less than what I drink per serving. Then I filled my glass with the amount of water I would usually pour of Cabernet and dumped it into my measuring cup: six ounces. Calling on my basic math skills, I quickly deduced that every time I think I’m having two glasses of wine, I’m really having three--and I’m not a generous pourer. I immediately had to sober dial my friend, who’s more of a fill-it-to-the-rim kind of girl. I gave her the creepy pack-a-day stat, and luckily, that’s all the intervention she needed.

Wine still continues to be my vice, but now I have a much clearer view of what moderate drinking really is, and try to abide by that on nights out. To me, an extra glass of Pinot is not worth the increased risk of cancer. And, since I’ve made it my personal goal to be the first person in my family to live to 100 (and actually be cognizant of it), I don’t need the booze messing with my efforts. As for the doctor who gave heart-healthy props to my daily drinking, I had my cholesterol tested recently, and I’m proud to report that my triglyceride and LDL levels are down and my HDL is still a beyond-respectable 81. (Phew.)

How much do you think you drink a week? Is it time you got out the measuring cups?

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