Science

I (heart) Science (and Booze)

Science. Is there anything it can’t do?

Science gives us medicine, and lasers, and glimpses of distant galaxies. It gives us computers, monkey sex, and Bill Nye. And now? Now it has given me an excuse — nay, encouragement — to drink alcohol.

As I’m sure you’ve all noticed, every week brings a new “good” food that actually causes cancer and a new “bad” food that actually cures herpes. These reports are often grabbed by a hungry (so to speak) media and exaggerated for optimal consumer consumption (as they say). “Breaking News: Black Coffee Saves Children From Burning Orphanage.”

So it is with alcohol. The beneficial effects of alcohol have been known (or suspected) for a long time now. Here’s a good overview of all the reasons why it’s better to knock back a few every now and again as opposed to always being the designated driver.

A great big study recently published in the British Medical Journal attempts to shed some more light on exactly what is happening with the whole alcohol/health thing. More than 50,000 Danes took part in the survey, which examined certain lifestyle choices and tried find a correlation with cases of coronary heart disease. It looks as though they found that with men, frequency of drinking was important (apparently they knew this already, but it was news to me so I’m telling you) — men who drank more frequently tended to be healthier when it comes to heart disease. Yowzers.

With women, frequency wasn’t as big a deal as overall quantity. This is fantastic news for me, since I tend to not drink at all from, say, Sunday through Thursday. Apparently I’m doing the smart thing by catching up Friday and Saturday.

Oh, look at that — is it Friday already? Excuse me, I have to tend to my long-term health.

Thanks to Dave for the tip-off!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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20 Comments

  1. I love the opening of this blog post. I'm a long-time student of nutrition and I cringe when I see the phenomenon you mention.

    "every week brings a new “good [for you – i.e. brussell sprouts]” food that actually causes cancer and a new “bad [for you – i.e. chocolate]” food that actually cures herpes"

    This is the very reason why fad diet books sell so well – we humans want to find a way to "cheat" the system – to eat what we want and lose weight. With fad diets (like Atkins), we lose weight at the expense of our health. IMO, the only diet advice that works for both weight loss and health is:

    Eat a preponderance of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Exercise a few times a week. That's it.

    With respect to alcohol, you're right – it has been shown for some time to have some health benefits. (Though, I think it's certain types of wine and very much in moderation.) So have fun! :)

  2. I am not a nutritionist, but I do know that it isn't "certain types of wine and very much in moderation". In 1999, no less an authority than the Harvard School of Public Health found that 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men significantly reduced the risk of heart disease. It found no correlation between type of drink (i.e. wine versus beer versus vodka), just in amount and frequency. Good news for non-wine snobs like me. Bad news for infrequent drinkers like me. I choose to blame my wife.

    BTW, Rebecca, I'm really glad you joined the Skeptic's Guide podcast; they really needed an infusion of hawt.

    For reference: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/press/releases/press1

  3. Well I'm not starting drinking yet. It seems like only yesterday I read they'd discovered that "yes, red wine protects against heart disease", but "only if you drink enough to get liver damage".

    Ede, bibe, lude; post mortem nulla voluptas. But what you eat and drink could kill you. Isn't life grand?

  4. On the wine thing: I think that the health effects that are specific to wine are related to the flavanoids (not just the alcohol) found in especially tannic reds. It's the same stuff I blogged about here: http://skepchick.org/blog/?p=23 (though in that case, it was the same flavanoids in chocolate).

    On the issue of hawtness, thanks, but I have to admit that the podcast crew already had the necessary levels of hawt — I just tend to bring it out of them.

  5. Cam – you're right. I never read much about the health benefits of alcohol – just what was casually available in nutrition mags. The article that specifically led to my belief actually didn't say that only red wine had health benefits, it just only mentioned red wine.

    I read up on it right now though and there seems to be a consensus that the idea is a myth. One article said that for a long time red wine was thought to be the only healthy alcohol, but that was because wine drinkers in general tend to eat healthier than beer drinkers (the article only addressed wine and beer). Once lifestyle tendencies were controlled for, there was no significant difference.

    All articles did agree that consumption is only healthy in moderation.

  6. "With fad diets (like Atkins), we lose weight at the expense of our health. IMO, the only diet advice that works for both weight loss and health is:

    Eat a preponderance of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Exercise a few times a week. That’s it."

    The only thing faddish is the notion that we would be healthier if we ate more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, an unnatural combination of sugars, indigestible fiber and unnecessary diabetes-inducing carbohydrates. We are evolved (and indeed evolving) to eat meat which is the substance that has put us top of the food chain on six continents for millions of years. Somehow we have got it into our heads that we should ignore this in favor of unnatural agriculturally derived horsefood.

    The other part is correct, we need more exercise. But one of the reasons we're getting so fat is not the burger, more the fact that we're not chasing down the buffalo in the first place.

    Take your unnutricious crap and shove it.

  7. Hello, I discovered this blog recently, I love it !

    To Diamond : That's funny I thought we were descended from frugivores and evolved to be omnivores ?

  8. We evolved from hunter-gatherers, so that means a diet consisting of fruits, nuts, berries, leaves, some bugs, and when we could get our hands on it, the remains of some large herbivore that a sabretooth tiger left behind when he'd had his fill.

    As we developped better tools for the job, we got proficient at hunting our own meat, but that still doesn't imply we're carnivores. We need a variety of food, and too much of one particular food group at the cost of all the others is going to be unhealthy.

    So the hamburger and the milkshake are perhaps not the cause of our problems, the fact we find them so tasty is.

  9. Yes, but wasn't that fact that we started getting more meat what allowed our brains to explode (in SIZE, I mean!) from all the extra nutrition?

    And I have heard some very cogent arguments that it had a lot to do with the seafood we ate during an "amphibious" stage in our evolution.

    We may not have started off as carnivores, but as omnivores, we have spent much of our time feeding on animal proteins.

    (Not that I believe, or see evidence that we are "strict" carnivores. Only that it is a large part of our diet.)

  10. Rav… the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is a sure a strange one, yet as you say its advocates seem to be able to produce a lot of evidence, circumstantial evidence, in their favour. The trouble is… not many "real" human-origins scienticians take it too seriously.

    I'm on a palaeoanthropology email list and Marc Verhagen (one of the AAT proponents) makes infrequent contributions. It's amazing how strongly he seems to believe and interpret everything through this hypothesis, it's almost approaching the level of a faith-based religion.

  11. Rav: yes, the introduction of meat into our diet helped our brains get the extra energy they needed to grow bigger. But that doesn't mean we should eat only meat, or too much of it. As with vitamines, the excess nutrients are just wasted, while some of the more harmful elements that are ingested anyway are now ingested in larger quantities.

  12. JF– I'd like to hear more about that; I always liked the "Swimming Ape" theory, but as you say, a lot of the evidence is circumstantial.

    I had no idea that anthropologists were busy getting dogmatic about it! Are there any particular sites you would recommend?

    Exarch– I understand what you're saying. I don't think I'm saying that we're supposed to be strict carnivores. But I do think that our modern diet should comprise more protein than our earlier ancestors were able to get.

    Anyway, I thought that Atkins' idea was to eliminate all REFINED carbohydrate from the diet. –Problem is, the twit didn't think we need to reduce fat content in our diets as well.

  13. I thought the Aquatic Ape theory was interesting too when I first heard of it. On the talkorigins website they have a few links to sites about it, including this one debunking the theory : http://www.aquaticape.org/.
    I thought it was convincing.

    (in short (I think, it's been a while since I read that site) they say it's wrong because

    – A lot of the evidence isn't really

    – The evidence is better explained otherwise

    – It makes bad predictions

    – Despite this proponents still support it in a pseudosciencey way.)

    HTH :)

  14. Diamond – no need to be angry, you can eat whatever you want and rest assured that I don't give a shit.

    As far as the notion that we need to cut down on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and increase our intake of meat…that is extremely well documented to be wrong. Although I never suggested vegetarianism (I only said that our diets should be comprised of a preponderance of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) it is well documented that vegetarians are healthier and live longer than meat-eaters. Nutrients come from plants. You either eat the plant or eat the animal that ate the plant. If you get your nutrients primarily from flesh, you're getting a lot of protein and cholesterol that you don't need. Protein, in particular, is one nutrient that most of us get way more of than we need. If you don't believe me, ask mother nature. Breastmilk has 3% protein in it, and that's for a growing baby. That said, I'm not a vegetarian. I just keep my meat intake lower than my fruits, veges, and whole grains.

    The claim that fruits and whole grains cause diabetes is ridiculous. It is refined sugars and flours that cause problems. Eating a lot of white bread and strawberry ice cream might cause diabetes. Eating whole wheat bread and strawberries will not. Look it up.

    Also, what is this claim that we are evolving to be meat eaters? That's the opposite of how evolution works. Our bodies don't evolve to adapt to our environment. Those of us who happen to mutate in ways that make us better suited to our environments tend to survive better and reproduce more. It is well documented that the human digestive system is neither carnivore nor frugivore, but omnivore. Our intestines are way longer than carnivores, which makes the digestion of meat a bit difficult for us, but far from impossible. Are you saying that some of our digestive systems are mutating to become more carnivore-like, and that those with this particular mutation will survive better and reproduce more because of it? If so, I'm really interested to see where you got your information.

  15. Here's some info on the relationship between fruits/whole grains and diabetes.

    http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbo

    Don't get excited by the glycemic index, be sure to check out the glycemic load.

    And a quick quote:

    "Regardless of what you've read or heard about the dangers of carbohydrates, they are an important part of a healthy diet. Carbohydrates provide the body with the fuel it needs for physical activity and for proper organ function. The best sources of carbohydrates – fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – deliver essential vitamins and minerals, fiber, and a host of important phytonutrients.

    If you want to go the lower carb route, try to include some fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain carbohydrates every day. They contain a host of vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients that are essential for good health and that you can't get out of a supplement bottle."

  16. Rozenn: Thanks for the link! As I said, I had liked the aquatic ape idea when I first heard about it; but I had no idea that the real proponents were quite so dogmatic and wacky. To be honest, I never thought that we were ever "completely" at home in the water, but I did believe that we made a good living gathering food from the sea– but that would have had to have been after we were already bipeds!

    Still, I had been so taken with this charming notion, that I completely forgot about "convergent evolution." And the author of the article really does a nice job in clarifying that many of the features of our supposed amphibious past are common to most terrestrial mammals, and that they are very different from truly adapted mammals like seals, otters, and whales.

    (When I can figure out how to get my registration to work, maybe I'll join the boards for more discussion!)

  17. Ah, beaten to it in providing a link to the AAT pages!

    Still, not all of them are crazed, dogmatic fanatics. I've found that its the people who hear the idea and like it who are the more fundamental. Read one of Elaine Morgan's books (she's got a few on the AAT, but also a few on other subjects so make sure it's the right one!) and you'll see that the 'evidence' she collected is presented in a reasonable and level-headed way. Sort of like "Look at this evidence, isn't it quite convincing? I do believe it indeed could be." It's the later people who get all fundy and crazy about it. (Yet more parallels with religion.)

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