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  • Joanna Injore

Alcohol and cancer- what are the risks?

Do you enjoy a few glasses of wine in the evening or at the weekend? Alcohol is a regular drink for a lot of people, in fact in 2018 82% of adults in England drank alcohol in the past 12 months with 49% of adults drinking alcohol at least once a week. But what are the risks or benefits of our regular tipple?

alcohol and cancer
Alcohol facts

What is the link between cancer and alcohol?

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) regularly reviews all the research relating to cancer and diet to produce recommendations for the public. In general, they found that the more alcohol drunk the high the higher the risk of different cancers.

There was strong evidence that alcohol increased the risk of:

  • Mouth, pharynx and larynx cancer

  • Oesophageal cancer (squamous cell carcinoma)

  • Breast cancer (pre and post menopause)

There was no set amount of alcohol connected with these cancers, just that consuming alcohol increased the risk

Two or more alcoholic drinks a day (30g or more) increases the risk of colorectal cancer

Three or more alcoholic drinks a day (45g or more) increases the risk of stomach cancer and liver cancer

It is thought that the type of alcohol you drink does not matter, as all alcohol contains ethanol and it Is this substance in alcohol, which is believed to be harmful. It is still not completely known not how alcohol increases cancer risk, but high quantities of ethanol can cause ‘oxidative stress’ in the body potentially causing damage to cells which could lead to cancer.

But isn’t red wine good for me?

Years ago, there were several reports stating the benefits of alcohol on health, particularly heart health in women over 55. However, we now know these benefits are small and you could probably get the same results by other healthier behaviour such as being more active!

The WCRF research report did show that up to 2 alcoholic drinks a day (up to 30g) actually decreased the risk of kidney cancer so if you do drink, it is even more reason to keep it to low levels!

So, is there a safe alcohol level?

The Department of Health (DOH) no longer talks about ‘a safe level’ of alcohol but suggested a level of drinking which is associated with ‘lower risk’.

3 key points from the DOH UK drinking guidelines:
  1. Men and women should drink no more that 14 units of alcohol a week.

  2. It is best to avoid drinking all your units at once and spread then out evenly over three or more days

  3. Try to have alcohol free days during the week

What is a unit?

Easy measures to remember from the British Dietetic Association:

There is one unit in:

  • half a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider (3-4 % alcohol by volume)

  • a small pub measure (25ml) of spirits (40% alcohol by volume)

  • a standard pub measure (50ml) of fortified wine such as sherry or port (20% alcohol by volume).

There are one and a half units of alcohol in:

  • a small glass (125ml) of ordinary strength wine (12% alcohol by volume)

  • a standard pub measure (35ml) of spirits (40% alcohol by volume).

There is also a handy ‘Unit and calorie calculator” you can use on the drinkaware website to check the units in your usual drinks

How many calories am I drinking?

Alcohol is quite energy dense, 1g of alcohol contains about 7kcal which is considerably more that 1g or carbohydrate and protein which only contains 4kcal per gram. This means that 1 unit of alcohol provides about 56kcal.

Alcohol is sometimes talked about in terms of ‘empty calories’. This is because alcohol does not contain any useful nutrients like vitamins, minerals, protein etc. It is also best to avoid ‘saving your calories for alcohol’ as cutting back on food to drink will mean you miss out on the nutrients from food.

If you also drink your alcohol with a mixer like fizzy drinks this can also add to the calorie content of your drinks. Alcohol can also stimulate your appetite- which could be useful at times when you have a poor appetite but not so good when you are trying to eat balanced meals!

5 Top tips to reduce your alcohol intake
  1. Try having smaller glasses of your favourite drink such as half pints, small wine glass or single spirt measures.

  2. Mix up your drinks between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks throughout the evening

  3. Avoid top ups, so you monitor how much you are drink more easily

  4. Avoid drinking when you are thirsty drink plenty of water to keep you hydrated!

  5. Be careful when drinking at home as your glasses maybe larger, so drink slowly!

It may be useful to also look at when you are drinking. Sometimes we associate drinking with helping to unwind and relax. If this is the case it might be useful to develop some other tools to help you relax and this is something that I often discuss during my consultations.

Take Home message

Including more alcoholic drinks in your diet can increase your risk of health problems such as cancer, but if you choose to have a drink try to keep it to low amounts and have alcoholic free days!

If you would like more advice or help book your free call today

References/ more information:

2 Alcoholic and cancer risk:

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