Alcohol and Cancer: Know Your Limit

MD Anderson Encourages Holiday Partygoers to Practice Mindful Behavior

MD Anderson News Release 12/13/2010

When raising your glass at this year’s holiday toast, choose your beverage wisely, say experts at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. If adults wish to drink alcohol, they should select drinks low in calories and alcohol content to limit cancer risk.

“Research shows that drinking even a small amount of alcohol increases your chances of developing cancer, including oral cancer, breast cancer and liver cancer,” says Clare McKindley, clinical dietitian in MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center.

Yet, other research shows that drinking small amounts of alcohol may protect the body against coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Some evidence even suggests that red wine may help prevent cancer.

“Researchers are still trying to learn more about how alcohol links to cancer,” says McKindley. “But, convincing evidence does support the fact that heavy drinking damages cells and increases the risk for  cancer development.”

Until we know more, MD Anderson offers the beverage guide below to help adults choose alcoholic drinks and drink limits with the lowest health risk.

Stick to the recommended serving size
Alcoholic drinks come in three choices: beer, wine and liquor. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

The National Cancer Institute recommends that women have no more than one drink per day and men have no more than two drinks per day.

“Women don’t have as much flexibility as men when it comes to alcohol consumption  because women generally have less total body water to dilute the effects of alcohol,” says McKindley.

This means alcohol stays in a woman’s body longer than in a man’s. And, the longer large amounts of alcohol stay in the body, the higher the risk for brain and organ damage, motor vehicle crashes, high blood pressure, stroke, violence, suicide, and other injury.

“How much you drink over time matters more than what you drink,” says McKindley.

Select low-calorie options
Many of us get way too many calories from all drinks, not just alcoholic ones — about 460 calories a day, according to a recent study. “That can lead to a growing waistline and an increased cancer risk associated with being overweight or obese,” says McKindley.

Before taking a sip of alcohol, check the bottle label and look at the calories per serving, if listed. Many popular drinks are loaded with empty calories – especially drinks mixed with soda, fruit juice or cream. Eggnog is one of the largest holiday offenders with about 340 calories per one-cup serving.

Stay away from 100-proof liquor
It’s the ethanol or alcohol in beer, wine and liquor that researchers believe increases cancer risk.

“So while you’re checking the bottle label, check the ethanol percentage or number as well,” McKindley says. “You’ll find either an alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage or an alcohol proof number.”

ABV and alcohol proof are standard measures used worldwide to show how much alcohol or ethanol is in a beverage. In the United States, the alcohol proof number is twice the ABV percentage.

Beer, wine and liquor contain the same amount of alcohol per serving — about half an ounce. That equals to about:

  • 40% ABV or 80-proof in liquor
  • 2 – 12% ABV in beer
  • 9 – 18% ABV in wine

“Avoid anything with even more alcohol, like 100-proof liquor,” McKindley says.

Non-alcoholic drinks are probably best
Avoiding alcohol, or limiting the amount you drink, is your best bet to ringing in a healthy New Year. If you’re looking for a non-alcoholic drink with a “cocktail-like” feel, try club soda and lime. It has minimal calories and health risks.

“Remember, alcoholic beverages offer few nutritional benefits,” McKindley says. “Look for healthier food sources and practice portion control during the holidays.”

For more information, visit Focused on Health.