Balancing the Risks & Benefits of Alcohol


The questions and answers about the pros and cons of drinking alcohol have been debated throughout history. How do we define moderation? Why does how much we drink and when (aka drinking patterns) matter? Why do the French, consumers of lots of wine, butter and cheese have lower cardiovascular disease than most? What’s the connection between alcohol and cancer? Do genetics play a role?

Leave it to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to put out this largely encompassing piece about the risks and benefits of alcohol, how to balance them and just about everything in between. Read on…

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Throughout the 10,000 or so years that humans have been drinking fermented beverages, they’ve also been arguing about their merits and demerits. The debate still simmers today, with a lively back-and-forth over whether alcohol is good for you or bad for you.

It’s safe to say that alcohol is both a tonic and a poison. The difference lies mostly in the dose. Moderate drinking seems to be good for the heart and circulatory system, and probably protects against type 2 diabetes and gallstones. Heavy drinking is a major cause of preventable death in most countries. In the U.S., alcohol is implicated in about half of fatal traffic accidents. Heavy drinking can damage the liver and heart, harm an unborn child, increase the chances of developing breast and some other cancers, contribute to depression and violence, and interfere with relationships.

Alcohol’s two-faced nature shouldn’t come as a surprise. The active ingredient in alcoholic beverages, a simple molecule called ethanol, affects the body in many different ways. It directly influences the stomach, brain, heart, gallbladder, and liver. It affects levels of lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and insulin in the blood, as well as inflammation and coagulation. It also alters mood, concentration, and coordination.

What’s Moderate Alcohol Intake? What’s a Drink?

Loose use of the terms “moderate” and “a drink” has fueled some of the ongoing debate about alcohol’s impact on health.

To read the entire article, click here.


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A Month With No Drink–Two Years and Counting

images-3Two days, ago, I completed my now annual no-alcohol September. It obviously was not as novel an endeavor as last year’s (my first go at it), which I wrote about in a post linked here and have also pasted below. But going a month without drinking still posed its challenges and continues to be an experiment–a sort of test of my energy, my self-control, my mindfulness, and my emotional state.

September has always been an exciting month for me. While it marks the end of summer–a season that is hard not to love–I have a soft spot for autumn. For me, September is a time of renewal, and harkens back to my love of fresh, clean notebooks and brand spanking new sharpened pencils at the start of each new school year. So it seems right that September is an opportunity to cleanse my system of the tasty glasses of wine and chilled pints of beer I so enjoy consuming during the year’s remaining 11 months.

September is also a month filled with Jewish holidays–some happy, some not. As we both celebrate and repent with friends and family, flanked over crowded tables of food and drink, it seemed easy to focus on the spirit of togetherness rather than the gentle buzz that often fuels my conversation at a slightly faster (read: less inhibited) speed.

I will admit that the earlier part of the month was the toughest. The house was abuzz with two kids back to school, frenetic afternoons and no more leisurely summer dinners. A glass of wine would have been just the antidote, slowing things down a bit in order to wallow in the remnants of warm nights and after-dinner walks to the park with our dogs.

Without booze, however, my focus was clear and I was able to linger in the moment, mental energy intact. As the days of September continued, I began to think of one upcoming day in particular–my son’s bar mitzvah which was taking place on September 22nd. After months of planning every detail, including the selection of wines that I did not taste but instead lined up one evening for my husband and a couple of friends to compare and contrast–I wondered how it would feel to fill my glass with seltzer rather than alcohol.

“You know, you can have a bye on the 21st,” my husband told me. “It’s your son’s bar mitzvah.”

“I know,” I answered, unwilling to commit one way or the other.

The bar mitzvah day approached, and I started to take my mental temperature–would it be easier to give a speech with some wine in my system? Yes. Would it take less effort to navigate the room, schmoozing with relatives I rarely see? Yes. Did I need a liquid boost to bring me to the center of a rousing hora? No.

So I let the decision hang in the air, waiting to see how I felt on that day. It arrived, and after a beautiful service in the synagogue, our crowd of family and friends moved into the sukkah for cocktails. The sunlight was streaming through the leaves and branches that covered the bamboo ceiling of this temporary structure, and I felt overcome with the emotion of the day. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t stressed. I was happy and calm and reveling in the moment. I walked over to the bar and ordered a glass of white wine and enjoyed every sip.

After that day, I continued my month alcohol-free. And now, I’m kind of glad it’s October.

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A Month With No Drink–Six Days To Go


calendar-crossed-outJust over three years ago, I wrote a post on Drinking Diaries, announcing that my husband and I were going to be alcohol-free on Mondays. It sounds like no big deal–and it wasn’t–but it was the first time we had made a conscious decision to keep wine off the dinner table. We’re not big drinkers, but it wasn’t strange for us to have a glass of wine with dinner nearly every night. Three years later, we’ve stuck to our alcohol-free Mondays, and often opt for seltzer or iced tea on other days too.

In my continued effort to explore the role drinking plays in my life–and in celebration of our new Drinking Diaries anthology–I decided to go alcohol-free for the month of September. I’d been looking for an excuse to try abstaining for a month, ever since I interviewed Carrie Wilkens, PhD, cofounder and clinical director of the Center for Motivation and Change in New York City, for an article I wrote called “The Art of Mindful Drinking,” During our interview, I remember Dr. Wilkens saying that one of the first things she suggests patients do is to take time off of drinking. And so, I did.

Here’s what I learned:

  • It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.
  • I missed drinking most on Friday nights, a sacred evening for our family when we have a longer-than-normal dinner and always stay home.
  • I strangely enjoyed the challenge of saying “no,” particularly during occasions when I would normally have had a glass of wine or two, such as during our book party and at a gourmet dinner out with my husband.
  • All this time, I thought it was wine that was making me tired. But it turns out I still doze off in front of the TV–even without any alcohol in my system.
  • Last weekend, I had to tell a waiter several times that I wasn’t drinking, as he refreshed the glasses at our table from a giant pitcher of red sangria. It made me empathize with other abstainers.
  • I’d expected to feel more clear-headed and energetic without the alcohol, but I basically feel the same. Perhaps the amount I normally drink isn’t enough to make me feel fuzzy and lethargic?
  • I miss drinking when I’m eating a good dinner. There is no doubt that for me, wine not only takes the edge off, but also enhances flavors, adding to my enjoyment of food.
During that same interview with Dr. Wilkens, she explained that “It’s not unreasonable to have alcohol as a part of your life, as long as you are able to assess whether or not you are relying on it too much.” The key, she added, is imageslearning to consume consciously enough to know how you’re being affected.

Consciously is the key word here. And taking the month off of drinking has made me more aware than ever of when and how much I’m consuming. Another positive factor came from a parenting perspective–it felt beneficial showing my kids that I wasn’t drinking, allowing them to see that I am mindful of my alcohol consumption.

A month without drinking has me feeling refreshed and triumphant, and I’ll probably do this again at some point in the future. I’d be lying, though, if I said I’m not looking forward to the end of the month. I can already “taste” the tannins of a full-bodied cabernet in my mind. But first, I still have six more days to go.

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Do We Need to Talk?

drinking talkby Meg Akabas

Did I have the “drinking” talk with my kids?  No, I did not.

You may find that shocking since I am a mother of four and a parenting consultant. Let me explain.

If we had sat down and talked to our kids when they were age 14 (or 13, or 16) about drinking responsibly, I’m convinced that it wouldn’t have done a bit of good.

As with any other topic, if you wait to talk to your kids about something until they are grown, it’s really too late.

Teaching our children about restraint has been a cornerstone of our parenting philosophy since day one. Research shows that fostering self-discipline in age-appropriate ways early and often is the best way to end up with kids (and ultimately grown-ups) who can control their impulses. And, studies show that teaching children self-discipline generally produces better-behaved and more successful kids.

Babies are not born with self-control; cognitive scientists say that practicing restraint from a young age can significantly improve a person’s ability to curb impulses later in life. My husband and I guided this process, giving our children opportunities to develop self-control by having them experience waiting, sharing, and not always getting everything they wanted (yes, disappointment is OK!).

For example, you could foster restraint using our method of resisting demands for toys and other things by creating a gift list for each of your kids.  When your children see something they want, tell them that you will put it on the list of potential gifts for his or her next birthday or for holiday (whichever is coming up sooner).  When you return home, in fact, write the item on his/her gift list.  The list will satisfy their immediate craving. Then, when birthdays and holidays roll around, they will know what to request from grandparents and other relatives when asked what they want.

However, we found with our kids that often, well before the gift-giving occasion did roll around, even on occasion by the next time we looked at the list to add a suggestion, more than half of the items on the list were already out of favor!  The kids could actually see on their own how much their wants were mere whims that changed even before the item could be acquired. This delayed gift plan was one of many strategies we used to foster self-control in our children.

We also tried our best to be models of restraint and moderation ourselves by keeping an appropriate voice volume, choosing our words carefully, conserving materials, exercising, eating well, and being frugal. (I know – it sounds demanding…it is.)  Even though my husband and I are far from perfect, it seems to have made an impression on our kids, who all appear to be quite self-disciplined as teenagers and young adults.

So, instead of the “drinking talk,” we’ve had discussions (not lectures) about restraint in general on an ongoing basis. We’ve helped our kids to develop self-control in all aspects of life, and made our best effort to model moderation ourselves.  All this superseded the need for a discussion about drinking.

Don’t get me wrong; I distinctly remember telling my kids somewhere along the way about the health benefits and risks of drinking, the absolute, hands-down, non-negotiable rule of never getting into a car with someone behind the wheel who has been drinking, and the dangers of excessive drinking (sometimes fatal) associated with hazing. But, these were discussions that came up at various critical times and special situations (before prom night, before leaving for college) as a reminder of what we had already taught them.

“Everything in moderation” is what we have instilled in our children. And, that goes for alcohol as well. It has worked for us for two reasons: the fact that my children have grown up in New York City and don’t drive is a salient factor. The other factor is that there is no history of alcoholism or any sort of addictive behavior in either my family or my husband’s.  So, for us, moderation has been a strong enough warning. Other parents would need to alter their message to suit their particular situation.

Nevertheless, as a parenting skills educator, my advice to other parents is that your attitude and approach to teaching your kids about drinking should be the same as all other things you teach your children. In short, you must start young and it should be a part of overall values you instill in your children. My point is that a “talk” just isn’t going to cut it as they head off to their first party.

What is my own relationship to drinking?  I have a glass of wine at the very end of most days for enjoyment and as a health measure (though the jury is still out on this one). I admit — wine and cheese are actually my two favorite food indulgences (even over chocolate)! Sure, there are times when I have to resist a second or third glass of wine (or piece of cheese); at those times, a little voice thankfully reminds me what I’ve hammered into my kids — you know — restraint….

Meg Akabas is the founder of New York City-based Parenting Solutions, a consultancy designed to help parents discover the joy in parenting, and the author of 52 Weeks of Parenting Wisdom: Effective Strategies for Raising Happy, Responsible Kids.   She regularly provides one-on-one consultations and leads workshops for parents and teachers on infancy through pre-adolescence.   

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Enough is Enough


by Caren Osten Gerszberg

In the wake of the Diane Schuler tragedy and the resulting bad press of the average mom who drinks an average amount of alcohol in a responsible way—I say enough is enough. We need to stop demonizing ALL women and mothers who drink, because many of them drink in a manner that is okay, as in…moderately.

Perhaps the ensuing onslaught of negativity towards women who enjoy alcohol has one saving grace—that those who do have a problem, drinking in secret and getting behind the wheel of a car after one cocktail too many, will hopefully be motivated to address their habits and potential addiction for fear that such a calamity could be part of their own story.

But for the many women and mothers among us who enjoy a glass of merlot, a cold brew or the occasional martini, the media’s response is not an acceptable indictment. Women are entitled to partake in the cocktail clutch just as men do. Yes, we are the ones who typically drive the kids around, and play with the fire that turns out an evening meal, but just like men who pal around and throw back a few at the bar, poker table and tailgate, there are women who want to do the same. Only many are more likely to do so while the kids are playing nearby or while putting dinner together. As long as there is no danger, why is this equivalent female version of drinking being labeled as dangerous?

Which leads me to another issue—drinking in front of our children. I have three of my own, and drink regularly in front of them. They are aware of the pleasures their parents derive from a glass of wine and see them do so responsibly. Some people feel it’s setting a bad example to drink while the kids are around, assuming the younger generation will therefore mimic their “proper” behavior and forever stay away from the bad stuff called booze. But what about kids learning and understanding that mom and dad can have a drink because it tastes good and they like it? That parents are people who are allowed to partake in certain activities that kids can’t. Until a certain age, we can drive; they can’t. We can vote; they can’t. We can drink; they can’t.

I realize this is not a simple matter for some women. That drinking can be loaded with complexity. A family history or relationship with an alcoholic can turn the act of drinking into a web of doubt, guilt and fear. But that’s not who I’m addressing here. I’m speaking about those in control—those for whom drinking is not fraught, or complicated, but merely one of life’s simple pleasures. And that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Caren Osten Gerszberg is a co-founder and editor of Drinking Diaries. To watch her interview about women and drinking on the ABC News Now show, “Moms Get Real,” go to


What’s Past is Past?

BE026929by Susan La Scala Wood

If you’ve never admitted you’re an alcoholic, does that mean you never were? I only ask because back in my college days (okay, and those last two years of high school, too), I may have been known to “throw back a few.” I’m talking the cheap stuff (usually a choice between Tickled Pink champagne, Captain Morgan and Natural Light beer), but only because we couldn’t afford the good stuff.

Not that we would have known the difference. Back then, it wasn’t about savoring a fine wine so much as it was about getting shit-faced (for lack of a better term).

I say “we” because drinking always happened in a group. “We” decided what “we” would drink not to mention who would buy it (which generally involved a silky blouse and a boatload of makeup). “We” was comfortable. If we got drunk, got sick and woke up not really remembering a whole lot, we did it together. And not one of us ever raised the concern that we might be alcoholics. After all, don’t alcoholics drink alone, in the coat closet, the basement, the laundry room? And, it’s not like any of us could have downed a fifth of vodka like Meg Ryan did in “When a Man Loves a Woman.” We couldn’t even imagine it.

No. We needed mixers, big time. Plus, we could stop. At any time. Well, unless we were at a party and we spotted our crush. Then, stopping might be a little out of our control. But otherwise, sure, we could slam on the brakes, put the cap back on the wine cooler and go on home.

So were we alcoholics? Some might say “yes.” Some might say “no.” I guess what I say is, “Does it matter?” Eighteen was half my life ago. I’m a very different drinker now, and I didn’t get there by standing in front of an audience of alcohol abusers, abstaining entirely, or following twelve steps. That’s not to say I didn’t have a problem with alcohol. I think not remembering the events of one night is a problem. And I’d admit to blanking many more times than that. But somehow I changed course, we changed course, without trying too hard. I think what happened is we grew up. We realized we didn’t like feeling like crap, saying stupid things, having regrets. We realized a fine wine paired with the right cheese beats beer through a funnel any day. We realized who we were and that we no longer needed a numbing security blanket.

I never admitted to being an alcoholic, and I’m not sure that means I never was. But where I am in my life right now, I’m not sure I care.

Susan La Scala Wood is an award-winning advertising copywriter. She is currently working on her second novel, and has high hopes for getting this one published. If she does, she will celebrate with a bottle of Prosecco, with friends, of course.