The Hamilton Spectator

Are you taking the new alcohol guidelines to heart?

Warning has some rethinking consumptio­n


The simple act of splitting a bottle of wine with a friend has become a fraught exercise in math. If there are five five-ounce glasses in a 750ml bottle of wine, and my female friend and I drink two glasses, what happens to the fifth glass? And are we poisoning ourselves with each delicious sip?

I refer, of course, to the new LowRisk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines released by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, which have been received with strong reactions of all kinds on social and mainstream media.

The gist of them is that any amount of imbibing can have a negative impact on one’s health. But, perhaps in an attempt not to appear entirely puritanica­l, the new alcohol guidelines allow us two drinks. Two drinks per week for women, that is, before we are putting ourselves at risk of “negative health consequenc­es.” (Men can have three.) A standard drink is a fiveounce glass of wine, a single bottle of beer or cider, or one shot of spirits — hence the wine bottle math.

Most restaurant­s offer a variety of sizes: five ounce, eight ounce and the monster 12-ounce version. Usually I lean toward the 12 ounce because I know that current me will likely order at least two of the fiveounce glasses. But now it seems I must choose the two five ounce or ask my husband to drink the extra.

Specifical­ly, the report states consuming three to six drinks per week increases the risk of developing certain cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer. Raise more than seven drinks to your lips and your risk of heart disease, other types of cancer and liver cirrhosis “exponentia­lly increases.”

I am a cancer survivor and yet, the possibilit­y of a return of the disease hasn’t stopped me drinking. But lately, as I drink a glass of Kim Crawford, I wonder how badly I should feel about it. Will these new — and frankly scary — guidelines be the final nail in the oak barrel?

If I seem flippant about this, it’s because the last three years of restrictio­ns, mandates and general societal breakdown have left me feeling burned out with rules, even if they are hidden behind the more friendly word “guidelines.” Many conversati­ons with friends (yes, sometimes over a glass of Sauvignon Blanc) have revealed I’m not alone in my frustratio­n about this, but also that it does have many of us reassessin­g how much we drink and how often.

It’s a perfect storm because many of us have been drinking more than we used to. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, 24 per cent of us increased our alcohol consumptio­n during COVID. I’m one of the 24 per cent and it’s a habit that has been difficult to rein in.

Rhonda (not her real name) is too. She admits she started drinking more during the pandemic and got used to that as a new normal. “We just always had wine on the go: a glass while making dinner, another glass with dinner, maybe another after … it adds up. I guess I told myself, the world is so screwed up and stressful right now, I deserve a drink. Or three.”

The latest studies got to her. “I’ve been thinking about cutting back for quite a while and I have to say that the guidelines did act like a kick in the pants,” she said. “I’m definitely still drinking more than two glasses of wine per week, but I’m also not allowing myself to drink with a who cares attitude anymore.”

Sheri (not her real name), a Toronto office manager at a film-production company, says at one time she would have jokingly described herself as “a raging alcoholic.” But since the pandemic calmed down, so has her consumptio­n. “I stopped drinking during the week and enjoy wine on the weekend,” she said. “That’s at least a bottle so, technicall­y, according to the new guidelines, I am still a raging alcoholic.”

She says the new alcohol guidelines won’t really change her current habits. “I have no doubt that the evidence is there that alcohol is not good for you, but I also know that there’s few things that are better than a gorgeous meal with a robust bottle of red with a dear friend. And they ain’t taking that away from me!”

Karen Ashbee, a freelance writer based in Calgary, isn’t too concerned either. “I’ll take my chances,” she said.

“I think like most studies, if you cherry pick the research you arrive at the responses that you want. So I paid no attention to (the guidelines). I subscribe to the rule of everything in moderation.”

Ashbee added that her husband is both an oenophile and an excellent cook, and both of them enjoy pairing food with wine. “If we make a lovely meal, we will definitely open a decent bottle from the cellar.”

But Anya Shor, who lives north of Toronto, thinks it was about time that the “booze is bad” message got the attention it deserves.

“We know it’s bad for you and we know most of us drink more than we should,” she said. “There has been mounting evidence about the damages of alcohol use and yet it’s so normalized on social media and in ‘mom culture’ with wine being called ‘mom juice.’ Cringe.”

Shor sees difference­s in attitudes toward men’s and women’s drinking — namely, “men drinking (bad), women drinking (she’s fun or she’s a mom so therefore she needs it!).”

It’s true that drinking alcohol is really ingrained into our culture and has been for quite some time, said Sarah Dermody, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Toronto Metropolit­an University.

“I think it is natural to question these new recommenda­tions as they seem to contradict society’s understand­ing of alcohol as a substance for leisure, bonding and coping,” Dermody said. “That being said, a large research literature has demonstrat­ed that any alcohol use comes with risk. Of course, this risk will depend on the individual, situation, context and so on. The guidelines are meant to provide a guideline for a level of drinking that will be relatively low risk.”

She notes that the two-glassesper-week recommenda­tion is a “one-size-fits-all approach” that is unfortunat­ely the standard in public health communicat­ions.

Shor is also dubious about the two-drink limit. “I think we need to take it with a grain of salt. It’s like they can’t come out and say you shouldn’t drink at all, so they came up with this,” she said. “It’s like telling people it’s OK to just have two cigarettes a week. It’s unrealisti­c. For most, you either smoke or you don’t.”

For those of us who were already questionin­g their relationsh­ip with alcohol, the guidelines are merely confirmati­on of what we suspected. When I don’t drink, I know I sleep better, my mood is brighter, I feel and look better, and my ability to concentrat­e is sharpened. But drinking a glass of wine or a cocktail feels good and eases negative feelings in the moment.

As George Bernard Shaw said, “Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life.” Ultimately, though, I’m realizing that consuming copious amounts of alcohol to cope will ultimately give me one more problem to cope with. And that’s something I can live without.

 ?? PEXELS ?? New alcohol guidelines suggest women limit themselves to two drinks per week.
PEXELS New alcohol guidelines suggest women limit themselves to two drinks per week.

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