I’ve read as many studies on alcohol and health as possible for the past decade-plus. And also the media coverage that goes with them. As I’ve mentioned before, wine studies are often big news. And by the time the coverage reaches the formats read or seen by most people, the studies’ caveats can be ignored in the rush of getting to the good or bad news of the headlines.
The tone of the coverage is either celebratory or snide depending on the findings. Each piece of “good news” about wine — like saying that having a glass is equivalent to going to the gym — is greeted by rhapsodic cheers. I get that, because who wouldn’t like a tasty way to skip going to the gym every once in a while? Of course, the rosy scenarios rarely play out in the fine print, but we can dream, after all. What puzzles me is the snark that accompanies news that alcohol, and especially wine, isn’t the cure-all that people had thought it was from previous reports.
The latest in this more negative category comes from an opinion piece by Barbara Allen in The Guardian titled, “Wake up tipplers, your nice plonk is not actually doing you any good.” I learned about it because someone commenting on Ms. Allen’s column linked to one of my blog posts, and then several people reading the comment clicked on that link. (Remember, folks, it’s not just Facebook that learns about what links you follow…) Her piece comments on the British National Health Service’s (NHS) recent statement that the maximum weekly “units” of alcohol that people can consume without adversely affecting their health should go from 14 to 12.5. (12.5 units of alcohol is five 175 ml glasses, while 14 units is 5.6 glasses.) In making the statement – not yet a recommendation or official policy — NHS cites a recent worldwide study suggesting that drinking more than five glasses of wine or beer a week is associated with shorter lifespan.
OK, fine. But Ms. Allen uses the piece as an indictment of people who claim wine as part of their eat healthy/revel in the dirt on your farmers’ market vegetables/get your exercise/you’re not really going to eat that, are you/didn’t see you at the gym today lifestyles. “When,” she asks, “are certain drinkers going to realize they’re just drinkers, consuming alcohol like everyone else, with no exemption from health consequences?” They’re “[fooling] themselves that there’s ‘nice’ alcohol and the other sort and that their demurely sipped mid-price plonk is ‘different’ somehow to a slugged-back pint.”
Ms. Allen claims to be writing not out of any sense of morality, but rather to comment on people’s self-delusion. “As far as I’m aware, nobody is busy pretending that they’re insulated from the health hazards of cigarettes – that, like with the wine, there’s a moderate way to smoke that is ‘actually healthier than non-smoking.’ Nor do you tend to get people sticking a needle in their arm at dinner parties, arguing: ‘Heroin lowers my stress levels and gives me a sense of wellbeing, so what’s wrong with that?’ ”
Well. Ms. Allen has definitely put her friends on notice, which may make for awkward silences at parties to come. But regardless of her social strategy, the study NHS cited reported that the difference in lifespan between five and 5.6 glasses of wine per week is about two weeks, so I’m not sure why she’s getting worked up.
Ten glasses per week shortens lifespan by six months. That means her “demure” drinkers will live a half year less than those who drink less. While six months is six months, it comes out to less than 1% of the average Western lifespan. It hardly seems necessary to be so emphatic. And since she objects to the tone rather than the drinking, I hope Ms. Allen gets equally outraged over the subset of non-drinkers who go on about their healthier-than-thou proclamations, which she doesn’t mention here.
But her column leads me to this question: Are people who think that a couple of glasses of wine a day is good for them actively deluding themselves? It’s certainly true that people tend to be more positive about the things they like. Plus, I can understand wine drinkers buying some of the hype put out by news outlets of every stripe, including reputable ones like Ms. Allen’s own Guardian. Even the particular study Ms. Allen references acknowledges that there appears to be a health benefit to drinking – it reduces the risk of having a non-fatal heart attack. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t understand why people feel the need to grasp at even the most dubious health benefits attributed to things like wine and chocolate. But I get that people don’t want to be seen as merely self-indulgent. While Ms. Allen might give them points for owning up to it, plenty of other people definitely wouldn’t.
I also have a few thoughts about the underlying study and ones like it. It’s important that entities like NHS with lots of data on health outcomes examine those data to help construct health policy. Patient outcomes are objective, in that you know how long they lived and what they died from. Data on amounts of drinking and smoking, however, are less objective because the patients provide the answers. No doubt the questionnaires have ways to try and get accurate numbers. But people aren’t stupid – they understand that there’s a stigma attached to drinking too much, or smoking even a little bit. It seems likely to me that people understate their alcohol and tobacco consumption on a regular basis. And some who drink very little or not at all may overstate it, so as not to seem overly zealous.
I’m not sure how to avoid this. A few years ago, I wrote about an Italian study that measured the amounts of certain compounds in people’s urine as a proxy for the amounts of wine they drink. This seems less variable, but unless doctors randomly stopped their patients on the street and dragged them inside to give a urine sample, there’s still the possibility of under-reporting. Wouldn’t at least some of the patients decide to drink less (or no) wine before their annual physical exams?
The other issue is that these studies show association. And, as science skeptics point out, association is not causation. (That’s probably the only point of intersection between their point of view and mine.) Even with a strong association, there could be other behaviors involved that don’t get covered that affect the results, or certain factors that act in concert.
Still, a statistically strong association indicates a direction to look further. So the notion that ingesting certain substances could have an impact (positive or negative) on health and health outcomes isn’t necessarily just the product of nanny-state thinking, but deserves consideration on the merits. Regarding alcohol, what these long-term longitudinal studies – following the same group of people for a relatively long period of time – suggest is that even what we consider moderate drinking results in a shorter rather than longer life.
However, the studies don’t examine the quality of people’s lives. As long as drinking remains legal, you are free to make your own decisions and weigh the potential benefits and risks. Obviously, when consuming alcohol affects others, such as during pregnancy or while driving, a stronger policy is necessary. Smoking bans serve the same purpose, to protect others nearby from the health hazards of secondhand smoke. But for your everyday life, you get to decide. This requires both the best possible information, and the acknowledgement that what’s considered the “best” information might change over time. Whether and how you describe that decision to others is also up to you, despite what Ms. Allen thinks.
I’m loving this video of a Michigan TV weatherman who calls out his on-air colleagues for their daily vocal disappointment with his forecast. I live with a weather geek husband who tells me what to expect weather-wise at various times of day, and I don’t blame him for the actual weather. But I understand people being tired of the teases of spring that revert back to what seems like an endless winter the next day.
The weather has also made deciding what to eat more challenging. But thanks to friends giving us some salmon they’d hot-smoked at home and looking back through old, old cookbooks, I came up with a salmon loaf recipe that works in warm or cold weather.
You can usually find canned hot-smoked salmon in nicer grocery stores if you don’t have generous foodie friends. Combine it with regular canned salmon (or non-smoked salmon you cook yourself) and the usual meatloaf ingredients and it’ll be really tasty. I like to make it a bit ahead of time, let it cool a little, then brown the cut side of the slices before serving. You can eat it hot or at room temperature, and then let the weather dictate what you serve with it.
Salmon loves red wine, so try something lighter-bodied like Château de Clapier Calligrappe ($12). If it’s warm out, put the wine in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes to cool it just a little. Happy calendar spring to everyone, and here’s hoping it feels like actual spring soon.
1 1-pound can of salmon, drained (save the liquid from draining, though) bones and visible skin removed, flaked into small bits (or 1 pound of cooked salmon fillet, flaked)
4 to 6 ounces hot-smoked salmon (a little more is fine too), drained if canned (discard the liquid), bones and visible skin removed, flaked into small bits
1 cup dry bread crumbs or cracker crumbs
1/3 cup milk, half and half, or cream
2 eggs, beaten well
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons anchovy paste
2 teaspoons chili paste or chili-garlic paste (like Sambal Oelek)
1 small onion, finely minced (about ½ cup)
1 carrot, finely minced (about ½ cup)
1 rib celery, finely minced (about ½ cup)
½ cup minced fresh parsley
¼ cup minced fresh chives or scallion greens
Grease a 4-1/2 x 8-1/2-inch loaf pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, and saute the onion, carrot, and celery with the salt and pepper for about 10 minutes until soft. Set aside to cool.
Put the bread crumbs in a large bowl with the drained liquid from the regular canned salmon and the milk. (If you cooked your own salmon, add 2/3 cup milk total). Stir to mix. Let sit for a minute to soak the bread crumbs, then mix in the eggs, lemon juice, Worcestershire, and chili paste. Add the salmon, cooled vegetables, parsley, and chives and mix well. Pack into the greased loaf pan and bake for 45 minutes. The internal temperature should be 160 degrees F.
Let the loaf cool for about 10 minutes, then remove it from the pan – it should slide right out. Cut into eight slices. Heat another 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a nonstick skillet, and brown the cut sides of the slices. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.