Around 700 people a day are diagnosed with diabetes in the UK, and there are an estimated 4.5 million people living with the disease. It’s a major and growing health problem, so any new advice around a change in lifestyle that can reduce the risk is welcome. And if that information suggests regularly drinking alcohol, then excuse us while we pop to the offie.
A new Danish study on over 70,000 people published in the journal Diabetologia has found that drinking moderate amounts three to four times a week reduced a man’s risk of diabetes by 27% and a woman’s by 32% compared with people who didn’t drink at all. Drinking in moderation means sticking to NHS guidelines of a maximum 14 units a week. Those units should be spread over three or more days, with some alcohol-free days.
Before you head to the pub to celebrate, it’s worth checking out the sober assessment from the NHS’s invaluable Behind The Headlines service, which we’ve helpfully summarised so it doesn’t cut into your drinking time too much.
1. The Study Only Collected People’s Info About Drinking Once
Participants in the study were only asked about their drinking habits once, but people do have this annoying tendency to change. So their habits could have evolved during the period they were being tested for diabetes.
As anyone knows who’s ever looked up and to the right before telling their doctor how many units they drink a week, there’s also the problem that people play fast and loose with the truth when asked about their drinking.
2. People Mix Their Drinks
The study found that different kinds of alcohol were linked with different effects. Drinking wine reduced the risk of diabetes for both men and women, but beer only reduced the risk in men and spirits actually substantially raised the risk for women, with no effect in men.
The differing findings for different drinks throw up some awkward questions about alcohol’s impact on diabetes, and the researchers did not take into account that people may mix their drinks, both on a single night or over the course of a week.
3. The Study Only Checked If People Got Diabetes After Five Years
On average, participants were followed up for just under five years, but diabetes can take longer to develop. There’s a chance all that drinking will catch up with people in year seven.
4. There Are Better Ways To Reduce Your Risk Of Diabetes
Most importantly of all, there are far healthier ways to reduce your risk of developing diabetes than drinking alcohol – namely a healthy diet and plenty of exercise.
Even if alcohol was conclusively proven to reduce the risk of diabetes – and this study only showed correlation, not causation – it wouldn’t change the fact that booze is linked with several other health problems. As Prof Janne Tolstrup, who led the research, says, “Alcohol is associated with 50 different conditions, so we're not saying ‘go ahead and drink alcohol’.”
Drinking in line with the NHS guidelines, or less, is unlikely to cause you any major problems and, more importantly, can be very enjoyable. But expecting it to make you healthier still seems a pipe dream.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.