Every day, we make decisions about what to eat and drink that can affect our long-term health. Each individual is ultimately responsible for determining the best diet for his or her body and life. Ideally, individuals should make nutritional decisions by balancing health goals and personal enjoyment, while considering their unique physical condition, family history, and risk for certain conditions.
Unfortunately, this is not what public health advocates or many in the media believe. Every new study that manages to get published in a journal (regardless of how reliable or unreliable the conclusions are) represents an opportunity to push for government policies or lifestyle recommendations, applying one-sized-fits-all prescriptions for the public.
For example: Alcohol has known health risks but it also has significant health benefits—not to mention the social and psychological costs and gains. This past November, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study linking moderate alcohol consumption to an increased risk for breast cancer. The study was conducted by the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), and it received a great deal of media attention. While earlier research had theorized that heavy drinking was associated with increased breast cancer risk, the NHS study found that even moderate and light consumption (less than one drink a day) could cause a 10 percent increase in a woman’s risk for breast cancer.
The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and ABC News among many others reported on the study. The Telegraph went as far as to tell female readers that they should “stick to one glass a day” or completely abstain if they have a family history of breast cancer.
However, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) released a paper this month that called the NHS study into question and saying that the “relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk needs further study.” They highlight some problems with the self-reporting method, such as underreporting of alcohol consumption, which might lead to the conclusion that less alcohol has greater effects. Also, the NIAAA points out that the study does not account for the potential difference in binge-drinking versus long-time light drinking. While epidemiological studies like the NHS study add valuable information, as the NIAAA notes, it’s inadvisable to create guidelines for consumers based on such preliminary evidence.
While it’s true that numerous studies have identified some link between alcohol and breast cancer, the mechanism isn’t well understood. For example, a 2005 study of Australian women aged 40-69 over a period of about ten years found that those who drank about 3-4 drinks a day did have a higher risk of breast cancer than abstainers, but the women who took 200 mgs of B6 (folate or folic acid) a day had a lower breast cancer risk than those who abstained from alcohol.
Furthermore, there’s evidence that suggests alcohol consumption reduces risks for other cancers and disorders. Numerous studies have found a correlation between alcohol consumption and the reduction of risk for other types of cancers such as kidney cancer, Hodgkins lymphoma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Moderate alcohol consumption is also widely believed to reduce the risk of heart disease—the leading cause of death for women in America—by 25 percent or more. While even that positive correlation is complicated, such potential benefits need to be weighed against the risks of alcohol consumption. Currently, public health professionals ignore such benefits when calculating the “social cost” of alcohol.
What all of this serves to show is that the medical research, while it has come a long way, has no perfect answers for how to prevent cancer or any number of other disorders. So, when you hear public health advocates pushing for policies that reduce public consumption of x, y, or z, product to supposedly reduce x, y, or z, disorder, take it with a grain of salt and consult with your physician before changing your lifestyle.