For many people, a little alcohol, such as the ritual evening cocktail, is a sure cure for the day's troubles. These same individuals might not be surprised to learn that when consumed in moderation, alcohol may also offer some protection against heart disease. Research has shown that moderate consumption of alcohol can raise HDL cholesterol.
It may also decrease blood clotting and insulin resistance and is linked to lower levels of certain markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein, all of which may reduce the risk of heart disease. A modest alcohol intake may also reduce the risk of diabetes. This should be good news for those who imbibe in moderation -- that is, up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. (One drink consists of 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer.)
In the early 1990s, epidemiologists -- experts who specialize in the study of large populations to determine how various diseases occur and spread and how they can be controlled -- looked at data from countries around the globe and noticed that the coronary death rate for people in France was considerably lower than for people in the United States, despite French people's well-known love of high-fat foods.
In fact, the phenomenon called the French Paradox relates to the fact that the French have fewer heart attacks than Americans. This is a situation that could not be explained simply by comparing cholesterol levels in the two countries. Experts felt that this difference was due primarily to the French diet, which contains more red wine, fruits, and vegetables. Although red wine contains antioxidants and other compounds that may help prevent blood clots or the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, it has not been shown that only red wine is protective. In fact, most studies have linked moderate consumption of alcohol in general -- including wine, beer, and hard liquor -- to a reduced risk of heart disease.
But experts raise a red flag at the idea of encouraging the consumption of alcohol in order to raise HDL cholesterol or lower coronary rates. Not only are there better ways to raise HDL cholesterol (for example, regular physical exercise), but also not everyone can handle alcohol well.
Many doctors are concerned about safe levels of alcohol consumption for patients. They point out that consumption of as few as three to five alcoholic drinks per day is associated with adverse health effects, and heavy alcohol consumption may raise blood pressure, increase blood triglycerides, damage the liver, cause birth defects (when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy), and increase the risk of developing certain forms of cancer. Also, the majority of those who develop drinking problems drink relatively small amounts.
A much safer bet for lowering cholesterol is increasing the fiber in your diet. See the next page to learn the types and sources of dietary fiber.