What, if any, health benefits are there to drinking alcohol? And what does moderate drinking look like? We dug into the research and spoke with an expert to bring you answers.

Brierley Horton, M.S., RD
February 04, 2021
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If this article title intrigues you, here's the good news: it's not clickbait. Research suggests there are some health benefits to drinking alcohol in moderation.

Moderate really is the key word, though. For healthy adults that's generally one drink a day for women and two for men. "A drink" is a 12-ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, according to the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Wine seems to get a lot of the health buzz (here's more on the health benefits of drinking wine) but if wine isn't your thing, there can be a healthy upside to other tips of booze as well. There can also be

Here, we dig into the research and talk with an expert to cull a list (albeit a short one) of the most promising health benefits of moderate drinking.

1. It raises your good cholesterol

"The most widely recognized health benefit is cardiovascular disease—alcohol raises HDL, or your 'good' cholesterol," says Taylor Wallace, Ph.D., CFS, FACN, principal and CEO at the Think Healthy Group and a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University.

A review study (and meta-analysis), which was published in 2011 in the journal BMJ, showed that drinking alcohol significantly raised HDL cholesterol, yet didn't raise total cholesterol, LDL or triglycerides.

"The line, however, between moderate and excessive alcohol consumption and its impact on blood pressure is a very, very fine line," says Wallace. "So does the little bit of rise in HDL offset the rise in blood pressure when it comes to overall cardiovascular disease risk? We don't know." (Here are 10 foods to eat for better cholesterol.)

2. It may lower your risk of death

Experts refer to this benefit as a lower risk of "all-cause mortality." Or—more simply—death from anything.

The harsh reality is we're all going to die eventually. But, as the experts outline in the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, most studies have found a lower risk of death among moderate drinkers when compared to folks who drank more. And, as you might expect, when you drink more heavily your all-cause mortality risk goes up, or you're more likely to die.

Here's the catch, though: alcoholic drinks lowering your death risk isn't the same as other diet choices affecting your death risk. It's not comparing apples to apples. "Alcohol is different than, say, sugar because no one dies in a car wreck from eating too many candy bars. So all-cause mortality isn't really fair for alcohol," says Wallace. (PSA: Reminder, don't drink and drive.)

3. It can be a mood-lifter

One of the review studies dates back to 1985. It found that drinking moderately reduces stress, tension, self-consciousness and even depression. On the flip side, moderate drinking also can increase happiness, euphoria and carefree feelings.

Newer research supports these findings. In fact, a 2020 study in the journal Frontiers in Genetics found that middle-aged and older adults who drink alcohol moderately have a lower risk of depression. (Try more of these 7 mood-boosting foods.)

4. It may help strengthen bones

This one's for the beer drinkers! "Moderate beer consumption tends to increase bone density, and bone density is a valid biomarker for preventing osteoporosis," says Wallace. Beer is a decent source of silicon, and silicon impacts bone mineral density. In fact, it has helped women with osteoporosis improve their bone mineral density.

One 2010 study that measured the silicon content of various commercial beers found that the amount of silicon we typically consume in a day can be found in about 1 liter of beer. Some beers deliver more silicon than others: IPAs, for example, are higher in silicon than wheat beers because IPAs use more malt and hops.

Words of caution

OK, so while there seem to be some legit health benefits behind that glass of wine (or two, if you're a man), if you're currently a non-drinker, you shouldn't start drinking. Despite the differing opinions among experts, they're fairly unanimous in their agreement that you should not start drinking alcohol purely for the health benefits.

Secondly, despite the ongoing message to drink in moderation (and again, that's up to one drink a day for women and up to two for men), binge drinking the U.S. is fairly prevalent. Up to a quarter of all adults 21 years and older report binge drinking in the past month, per the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. And binge drinking doesn't have any health perks, plus it's quite risky.

Bottom line

Experts—including the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—say that so-called "low-volume alcohol consumption" (aka moderate drinking) is fairly low-risk for most adults, especially compared to drinking higher amounts.

Keep in mind, too, that alcoholic drinks contribute little to no other nutritional value. They're typically straight-up calories, nothing more—and if you order a fruity- or soda-based beverage you'll add even more "empty" calories.