The sobering truth behind Canada’s proposed low-risk drinking guidelines

The new proposed Canadian low-risk drinking guidelines (currently undergoing expert panel revision following public consultation and are expected to be released in January), suggest that people should drink no more than six drinks a week to reduce risks associated with alcohol. 

The new guidelines have taken a spectrum approach to risk, where low-risk is 2 or fewer units per week, moderate risk is 3-6 units per week and high risk is 7 or more units per week. A unit refers to 5 ounces of wine, a bottle of beer (5%), or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. These guidelines apply to both men and women. It is recommended that you do not consume any alcohol if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

The Canadian guidelines have not been updated since 2012 and these new recommendations reflect the most up-to-date science. As a psychologist, the Clinical Director of a Substance Use program, and a person who likes wine, these new guidelines can be difficult to ingest.

Contrary to previous beliefs that people with alcohol problems or functional impairment were the only ones at risk, it turns out that any level of alcohol consumption poses health risks. In the past, nobody was worried about getting cancer from a few drinks in the evening. Even the healthiest among us did their yoga, ate their plant-based meals, and didn’t think twice about throwing back a few drinks.

But research now confirms a strong, direct relationship between any level of alcohol consumption and disease, specifically cancer and heart disease, and we can keep this in mind when we decide on our own levels of consumption.

“Research now confirms a strong, direct relationship between alcohol consumption and disease, specifically cancer and heart disease.”

Don’t be afraid – be informed

The direct impact of low-to-moderate alcohol consumption on the brain and body cannot be overstated. The truth is, many medical professionals, such as oncologists and cardiologists, will tell you this is old news. As highlighted in the CBC segment “Alcohol should have cancer warning labels”, doctors are well aware of the harms of alcohol, especially between alcohol and cancer risk. They just accept people tolerate a certain level of risk to enjoy life. Nobody eats a greasy hamburger or an ice cream sundae believing it’s healthy.

The problem is that previous research told us that alcohol in moderation was good for us. Turns out that research was flawed. It included former drinkers (aka people who had problems and quit) in the “non-drinkers” category, where many of these people would have already experienced negative health consequences. This error made it look like drinking a bit was less harmful than not drinking.

“Previous research told us that alcohol in moderation was good for us. Turns out that research was flawed.”

Another myth commonly circulated was that resveratrol (an antioxidant in red wine) is good for health, without the indication that you would have to be drinking toxic amounts of alcohol to get any significant benefit. It is much better to get your antioxidants from food. And what about the Mediterranean diet that includes wine as a protective factor? In North America, we like to parse out pieces of a Mediterranean lifestyle to suit our needs. The beneficial aspect of this lifestyle is likely moderation, where alcohol is consumed in small amounts with a meal, not binged on a Friday night.

What amount of alcohol is safe?

From a health perspective, no amount of alcohol is without risk. Alcohol is a known level 1 carcinogen – that means as deadly as tobacco and asbestos – linked to seven different types of cancer, including breast and bowel cancer. Risks are particularly elevated for women who have a physiological make up that renders alcohol more toxic. Alcohol is linked to heart disease, including coronary artery disease and heart attacks, heart failure, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, and stroke.

These guidelines focus on severe health consequences but do not delve into other health effects such as what alcohol does to your skin, gut microbiome, sleep quality, body mass index, cell repair capability, stress response, or mental health.

So what should I do now?

Friends of mine not in the medical profession, have speculated that this new research is just the flavor of the day, like avocados or skinny jeans. There is no doubt about the quality of this research, however. It is grounded in global evidence from previous reports, mathematical modelling, and a comprehensive review of the current literature.

To me, it means being aware that my alcohol consumption may do harm to my health, making an informed choice about engaging in a behavior I enjoy, and taking a harm reduction approach to risk-taking. This means being more mindful about when I choose to drink and shifting my behaviour most weeks to stay within recommended limits. Unfortunately, I can no longer ignore the fact that wine is harmful or believe that it makes me healthier.

What does this report mean to you? The most important information it gives us is the option of informed choice. In life, we are constantly faced with deciding between risk and reward, but when it comes to drinking, we now have the information to make that choice wisely.

Changing your drinking habits can improve your short- and long-term health – even small changes can have a big impact. ALAViDA can help.

If you’d like to change your relationship with substances, ALAViDA provides a wide range of support options. Connect with our care team for a personalized program proven to reduce substance use or use our self-guided approach to go at your own pace. Support is accessed through our TRAiL platform and includes a wide range of resources to help you reach your goals, including iCBT modules (internet-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), notifications and tracking tools, and more. Access the ALAViDA TRAiL.