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New Research: Moderate Drinking Provides No Health Benefits

Drinking more than one or two servings a day harms your health.

Key points

  • A new systematic review uses a different approach to measure the health effects of moderate drinking.
  • The paper finds no health benefits to moderate drinking.
  • In addition, consuming more than one or two servings of alcohol a day increases the risk of earlier death.
Drobot Dean/Adobe Stock
Drobot Dean/Adobe Stock

Alcohol consumption is an often-celebrated part of our culture. Millions of Americans enjoy beers at the ball game, wine with dinner, or a cocktail with friends after work on Friday.

For decades, public health officials touted evidence that moderate drinking—one to two servings of alcohol a day—improves wellness. Large studies and systematic reviews found that moderate drinking improves cholesterol levels, reduces the risk of heart disease, improves cognition, and even helps you to live longer.

But a growing body of evidence is calling those health benefits into question. In fact, a new systematic review published last month in JAMA Network Open finds that moderate drinking provides no health benefits and that drinking more than one or two drinks a day increases your risk of dying earlier.

What’s going on here? Previous research on alcohol consumption has used observational studies, meaning researchers simply tracked how much participants drink and then looked for associations. This research often did not take into account other factors in participants’ lives.

The new report, which combined more than 107 studies with almost five million participants, used longitudinal cohort studies, meaning researchers followed the participants over many years. The authors used statistical analysis to consider other factors affecting participants’ health.

They found that people who don’t consume alcohol are more likely to have other health risks. A small percentage of people abstain for religious reasons. The others are more likely to abstain because they were previously alcoholics, which leads to its own health problems, or have a chronic health condition that prevents them from drinking. In short, people who completely abstain from drinking have a higher risk of dying earlier from other causes.

At the same time, light and moderate drinkers were more likely to exercise and eat a healthy diet, less likely to have a chronic health condition, and more likely to be wealthy. In short, moderate drinkers were more likely to lead healthier lifestyles.

Taking these factors into account, the new analysis found that moderate drinking increases the risk of premature death. For women, the risk of dying earlier increases once they drink 25 grams of alcohol (less than two drinks) a day; for men, the risk of dying earlier increases once they drink 45 grams of alcohol (less than three drinks) a day.

Participants who drank less—one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men—did not gain any health benefits compared to those who abstained from drinking completely.

The take-home message: Light drinking does not provide any long-term health benefits, and moderate drinking can increase your risk of dying earlier.

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