A daily glass of wine for better health? Canadian study says it’s too good to be true

Click to play video: 'Drinking benefits overestimated: B.C. study'
Drinking benefits overestimated: B.C. study
WATCH: A new B.C.-led study suggests previous research has exaggerated the health benefits of drinking alcohol, and underestimated its risks. Kylie Stanton explains – Mar 22, 2016

Plenty of recent research points to how a daily glass of wine could improve your heart health and extend your life expectancy. But in a new study, Canadian scientists say the findings may be exaggerated.

Researchers out of the University of Victoria are poking holes in research about moderate drinking and its so-called benefits for reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Turns out, “occasional drinkers” – or people who have one drink per week – are the healthiest.

The new review found that studies contain an “abstainer bias,” in which scientists would group former drinkers, who had to give up booze because of health implications, with those who never took up drinking, according to lead author Dr. Tim Stockwell, a psychologist and director of the university’s Centre for Addictions Research.

“I drink and I really like it and I wish it was true it would make me live longer but I try to be careful. When science is bad, it’s important to question it,” Stockwell told Global News.

“I don’t think people should be drinking two to three drinks a day thinking that their health will be better…it’s important to raise serious doubts about these too good to be true stories that have circulated so widely about moderate drinking,” he explained.

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His research is a follow-up to his landmark work published 10 years ago, in which he and his colleagues highlighted the “abstainer bias.” This time, the study is an international collaboration with scientists around the world.

READ MORE: Online alcohol calculator shows just how much you’re drinking

Across the board, research suggests that abstainers are worse off than people who drink three to four drinks a day. But 75 per cent of “abstainers” turned out to be former drinkers and people who had to stop drinking because of health issues or medications they needed to take.

“They’re frail, unhealthy and on prescription medications. This is a major cause of systematic bias – former drinkers need to be grouped separately,” he said.

“Health benefits appear to be exaggerated while the health risks may be underestimated,” Stockwell said.

READ MORE: Alcohol often an overlooked cancer risk, Cancer Care report warns

Stockwell and his team conducted a review by handpicking 87 studies that looked at the health outcomes of people who drink. They whittled down the research they used from more than 3,000 published works.

After correcting for this bias, they said it was people who drank the most who are at the greatest risk of poor health.

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This isn’t necessarily the fault of research, he notes. Some of these studies are expensive and extensive pieces of research with sample sizes of more than 50,000 people. They measure for many risk factors, so studies could be asking how much people drank in the past week, instead of the past few years.

READ MORE: Are dark chocolate and red wine not healthy after all?

They might even ask how often someone drinks but not necessarily how much.

Stockwell also played a part in a recent government report that warned Canadians to pay attention to how much they’re drinking because it’s become such a social norm.

Eighty per cent of Canadians drink, according to 2013 estimates. At least 3.1 million people drank enough to be at risk of immediate injury, and another 4.4 million are at risk of chronic health conditions, including liver cirrhosis and cancer, the Public Health Agency of Canada report warned.

READ MORE: Canadians’ drinking habits may lead to harm, chronic disease, chief health officer warns

Scientists have been saying there are antioxidants called polyphenols found in wine that could be what’s helping to boost health. Stockwell says to take these findings with a grain of salt.

But just a grain. Too much salt could be putting your heart health at risk, too. But that’s another story.

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His full findings were published Tuesday morning in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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