I’ve been drinking more beer in the last three months than I have in the last fifteen years. Meaning, I’ve been drinking beer at all. I gave it up because it made me sluggish, but I’ve fallen back in love with beer’s flavor. Is this an unhealthy development?

In his 2014 Pacific Standard article “The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy,” Stanton Peele not only argues that moderate alcohol consumption protects you from cardiovascular disease and helps you live longer, he treats abstinence itself as an undeniable risk factor in heart disease and shortened life spans. “Well-informed Americans,” he says, “think that abstinence is better for them.” The reason: “…Americans’ addiction-phobia, which causes them to interpret any daily drinking as addictive.” A psychologist and addiction specialist by trade, he cites studies that show the positive effects moderate and even “excessive” drinking have on health and longevity. Peele traces this deep-seated cultural issue back to the temperance movement on through modern health care, where the U.S. public health establishment’s standard treatment of alcohol’s cardiovascular benefits is a resounding, systematic silence.

I read this the other night while pouring myself a pint. Maybe I should explore my motives for resuming drinking in case I’m unconsciously reaching for some delicious way to manage the increasing stress in my life. But in terms of volume consumed, there’s no issue. When I drink, I drink one beer. Too much alcohol disrupts my sleep, so I keep it between three and five beers a week. Most people laugh. Five a week? How about five a night! 

According to the Mayo Clinic, my weekly three-to-five fall within the moderate range, which the CDC lists as up to two drinks a day for a man, one for a women, with a drink defined as 12 ounces of beer and 5 ounces of wine. “When it comes to drinking alcohol,” the Mayo says, “the key is doing so only in moderation.” Peele encourages moderate consumption, as does Aaron E. Carroll’s recent The New York Times piece “Drink to Your Health (in Moderation), the Science Says,” which offers stats about how people who don’t drink have a higher death rate than those who drink moderately.

With so many articles giving conflicting information about the pros and cons of contentious foods ─ coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you; dark chocolate helps your heart, too much fat harms it ─ it’s hard to figure out moderation. 

Moderation lies the core of American dietary thinking. “Everything in moderation,” goes the old line, meaning don’t binge, and don’t abstain, but do take it easy on the bad stuff. Between the two poles of asceticism and indulgence, moderation is about never giving up or fully giving in. It’s a reasonable approach: walk the rational temperate middle road to health. Moderation works well for those of us who want to limit something for physical or ethical reasons, like meat, dairy or dessert, but not abandon it entirely. Life without chocolate is no life at all, but you don’t want to suffer from too much of a good thing, despite what Mae West said. Another example, I’m a weekday vegetarian. I abstain from animal flesh Monday through Friday, and I indulge on Saturday and Sunday. The reason: I object to factory farming on ethical grounds, but I can’t afford to buy only small farm, humanely raised meat. But by abstaining five out of seven days I balance my values with my financial inability to fully live by them, and also accommodate my taste for certain foods, since I do love pork. The result: moderate intake of animal fats and cholesterol; more regular intake of vegetables, legumes and fruits; greatly reduced participation in an unethical farming system; and only moderate guilt about not being able to skirt that system entirely. This approach loosely fits within the Aristotelian idea of the golden mean, and maybe in Confucius’s Doctrine of the Mean.

If I wonder whether I should worry about my sudden return to beer, Peele says it’s because this sort of worried thinking is part of our distinctly American problem. As a nation, we’re ambivalent about alcohol. We see it as poison that’s healthy to avoid, yet we drink it at games and parties and dinner. So we binge, sober up, and wrestle with our urges and guilt, when more of us should be sipping responsibly like so many Europeans. Peele acknowledges that it’s moderate consumption which science has found to have the most health benefits. But in order to reap those benefits, Americans need to get over the idea that daily moderate drinking ─ meaning, a drink or two at night ─ is somehow unhealthy, or a sign of a mounting problem, and the health community needs to stop telling the public that seven drinks a week for women is healthy, but ten is excessive. Peele distinguishes himself from the standard “everything in moderation” ideology in favor of Oscar Wilde’s quip about “Everything in moderation, including moderation because, he says, “the evidence that abstinence from alcohol is a cause of heart disease and early death is irrefutable.” Alcohol’s “benefits are greatest if you drink moderately. But even drinking more than is ‘perfectly’ recommended, without displaying clinical symptoms of problem drinking or alcohol dependence (and these are not subtle), is generally better for you than drinking nothing.”

He isn’t talking about just drinking a few beers. He’s saying drink to live. I love it when science tells me what I want to hear.


Additional Reading:

“Drink to Your Health (in Moderation), the Science Says” (Aaron E. Carroll, The New York Times, Dec. 21, 2015)
“The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy” (Stanton Peele, Pacific Standard, Aug. 12, 2014)