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So Are 2 Drinks A Day Really Too Many?

This looks like way more than one too many.
Chris Gramly
This looks like way more than one too many.

A lot of us are drinking too much, and on Tuesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called us on it.

More than eight drinks a week for women and 15 drinks a week for men can get you into trouble, the CDC warned.

But that doesn't seem to jibe with other studies that found that drinking alcohol makes for better heart health, several Shots commenters noted. Shana Cuddy wrote:

"Interestingly, in another NPR article they say that moderate drinkers are healthier overall than folks who don't drink at all, and they define 'moderate drinker' as someone who has 3 or less drinks per day. This would be 21 drinks per week for women, which this story claims is well over twice the safe limit."

That study, which found that Europeans who drank zero to three glasses of wine daily had better cardiovascular health, didn't prove that it was the wine that made the difference. It could be that people who drink moderately are healthier to begin with. And there haven't been any randomized controlled trials to find out.

As a result, the American Heart Association says it "does not recommend drinking wine or any other form of alcohol to get these potential benefits."

Then what about the weekly limits? Many of our readers thought they seemed pretty darned skimpy. To find out how the CDC came up with them, we talked with Lela McKnight-Eily, a health scientist at the CDC who is the lead author on the new study.

"It's a daily average," McKnight-Eily told Shots. The average is based on population studies, which show that people who drink more than that have an increased risk of heart disease, breast cancer and other health problems. "There's no level that's not at risk," she said.

That takes a bit of the shine off that glass of wine while cooking dinner, especially since if I indulge every day, I'm close to the upper end of the moderate drinking zone.

But the numbers get more complex than just weekly averages.

Public health officials are particularly concerned about people who binge drink, which the CDC defines as more than four drinks at a sitting for a woman, and five drinks for a man.

About 1 in 6 Americans binge drink, according to another CDC study. That's 38 million people. In that study, people defined binge drinking as downing nearly eight drinks in a session, four times a month.

People also need to be aware that accepted definitions of "a drink" don't always match the doctors' measure. The feds measure a glass of wine as 5 ounces. "You could get two or three drinks in a standard wine glass and not be aware of it," McKnight-Eily says.

Indeed, between those giant restaurant glasses, high-alcohol craft beers, jumbo martinis and human nature, it's easy to overindulge. As the commenter going by the scrambled handle "r4b1db4dg3r" wrote:

"I feel that once you reach two per day, it at least merits investigation. Most 'drinks' are more than one drink and people often underestimate, so in that range two could mean four or even five. Whether or not a true two is a problem is more unclear. Most people with a serious drinking problem blow that out of the water, and the point of this article is that if people asked maybe more of those people who really and clearly need help would be caught."

That's really what the CDC is trying to say, r4b1db4dg3r. If doctors and other health professionals don't routinely ask all of us about alcohol, they can't help the people whose drinking has slipped from pleasure to problem.

And that shifts the focus of the "What's too much?" question from averages based on the public at large to right where it should be, on a person's individual risk.

"It depends on who you are," McKnight-Eily says, noting that many people have health conditions that are made worse by alcohol. "That's why we want [people] to have the conversation with their health providers."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.