A nation of drinkers

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A National Pastime?

by Charlotte Watts

We all know the reputation that the British have for excessive drinking to the point of very extreme behaviour. Hardly the continental image of the gourmet meal with a fine wine, and even though we are becoming more educated on the quality versus quantity possibilities of alcohol, many Britons feel the need for a prolonged drunken rite of passage before moving into their “sensible drinking” phase. Health professionals often have to pick up the pieces after this, especially with the habit of drinking large quantities firmly in place.

Many people have taken the information that alcohol in moderation has health benefits and have used this to excuse continual drinking habits that there would be difficulty defining as “moderate”. To state this clearly, for women moderation means no more than 14 units a week and for men 21 is the maximum. That is two and three units a day respectively and no, drinking all of your units in one night is not a good idea as far as your liver is concerned. That also means a 175ml glass of wine, not a large Ikea glassful! It is binge drinking and even a continual drip-feeding of daily alcohol just above the healthy limits which has shown to increase the risks of breast cancer, heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis (to name few).

The Mediterranean Comparison

There has been much talk of the “French Paradox” and confusion about how people on the continent generally and especially in Mediterranean countries can consume wine daily and eat meat and yet have a relatively low incidence of heart disease compared to the UK. Unfortunately this is changing due to the inevitable insidious infiltration of vast food coming up through the younger generations, but the figures still persist. A typical Asian diet also contains moderate amount of beer and wine, reflected in a lesser rate of heart disease.

The difference between the average British diet and that in parts of the continent where the health risks are lower, such as Greece and Sicily is the moderation and the amount of antioxidants that are eaten in the diet. Antioxidants protect the body against damage from heat and light, or oxidation. They are found in fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, olive oil, seeds and pulses; foods in abundance in a Mediterranean diet and it is their positive presence rather than the inclusion of meat and alcohol that is the important factor. Red wine is seen to be part of the equation as it contains resveratrol, catechins and procyanidins, beneficial plant chemicals or bioflavonoids that give it its colour and have strong antioxidant properties and protect blood vessels. Its heart disease preventing properties are now well researched and documented. But even within the red wine area, there are degrees of benefit. Some wines have more flavonoids than others and as a general rule, the deeper the red, the more are present. The highest amounts are seen in Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chianti varieties of wine, Rioja and Pinot Noir are intermediate and the lowest benefit is seen from Cotes du Rhones, most rose wines and of course, whites.

It is interesting to note where alcohol has been a vessel for other beneficial substances; for instance in parts of Spain, artichoke liqueurs have been traditionally drunk before a rich meal. Artichoke is rich in a substance called cynarin, which can help to protect the liver against damage from saturated fats, and helps to control cholesterol levels4. The same cannot be said of the Diamond White cider, Hooch, Vodka Redbull and Smirnoff Ice, the most popular British drinks in the years 1980, 1995, 1998 and 1999 respectively, according to The Times. Classy!

If you feel you have been overdoing it lately, book now for the Yoga Weekend at Gayles Retreat, to start getting your health back on track.


Clayton, P. Health Defence, Accelerated Learning Systems, 2001.
Frankel EN et al, Lancet 341: 454-457, 1993.
Renaud S et al, Lancet 339: 1523-1526, 1992
Hobbs C, Natural Liver Therapy, Putnam, 2002.