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FUN FOOD FACTS – Alcohol and cancer
Yes, there is substantial research linking alcohol to increased risk for several cancers. The health risks of alcohol are not news. We’ve all heard that if you’re drinking you shouldn’t drive, and if you’re pregnant you shouldn’t drink alcohol.
Before you dive into some of the alcohol-cancer facts below, know that health risks should be put into perspective. When it comes to health, things are almost never simply black and white. Yes, there are a few substances that everyone should avoid at all costs and several things that everyone needs to have every day for health (water & essential nutrients). Health risks are usually a nuanced continuum spanning from “avoid at all costs” at one extreme to “get some every day” at the other extreme.Understanding health risks and putting them into perspective is key! #FoodFact #HealthRisk #Alcohol #Cancer Click To Tweet
This post covers alcohol and cancer – there are many other health effects alcohol has, and many other causes of cancer – this post doesn’t cover all of them. ☺️
Fun Food Fact #1: When we say “alcohol” we’re actually referring to “ethanol”
From a chemistry perspective, “alcohol” is a group of organic compounds that have an alcohol group (OH) bound to a carbon. The one we drink is specifically ethanol (CH3CH2OH). Many of the other organic alcohols are more toxic.
Now that we’ve clarified that, I’m going to use “alcohol” for the rest of this post, and it will relate specifically to ethanol. Cool?Fun Food Fact: When we say 'alcohol' we're actually referring to 'ethanol' #FoodFacts #Alcohol #Cancer Click To Tweet
Fun Food Fact #2: Alcohol use is strongly correlated with several cancers
“Not a lot of people know alcohol is a level-one carcinogen,” Harvard Medical School addiction researcher John F. Kelly told me. Any amount of drinking is associated with an increased breast cancer risk…
Did you know that?
Here’s a chart of a bunch of food and lifestyle habits and their associated cancers (red & pink) and cancer prevention (green & yellow). See that (non-solid) row of red/pink about half-way down? Ya, that’s alcoholic drinks…
The relationship between alcohol consumption and cancer risk has been known since the beginning of the 20th century. Epidemiological and biological research on the association has established that alcohol consumption causes cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colorectum, and female breast.
Oh and if the term “correlation does not equal causation” isn’t totally crystal clear, I talk all about WTF that means in this post.Fun Food Fact: Alcohol use is strongly correlated with several cancers. #funfoodfacts #alcohol #cancer Click To Tweet
Fun Food Fact #3: It’s not the ethanol itself, it’s probably its metabolism to acetaldehyde that causes cancer
Alcoholic beverages are complex mixtures, but ethanol, mediating a genotoxic effect upon metabolism to acetaldehyde, is recognized as the agent predominantly accounting for carcinogenesis.
There is a strong correlation between chronic ethanol consumption and cancers of the intestinal tract, although ethanol itself is not carcinogenic; causation may lie with the metabolite acetaldehyde.
What these mean is that when our body starts to break down alcohol to detoxify and eliminate it, one of those compounds, acetaldehyde, is actually the one that messes with the DNA in our genes to cause cancer.Fun Food Fact: It's not the ethanol itself, it's probably its metabolism to acetaldehyde that causes cancer. #funfoodfact #alcohol #cancer Click To Tweet
Fun Food Fact #4: The more alcohol you drink the higher your risk of developing cancer
This is called “dose-response” or “dose-dependent”. So, how much do you need to drink for how long in order to increase your cancer risk by how much?
If you look at page 3 of this 9-page IARC doc (page 98), you’ll see in Box 2.3.1 the risks of different cancers increases with the increased consumption of alcohol.
You’ll notice that even at a consumption of zero, there is still a risk for the different cancers (mouth/oropharynx, oesophageal, laryngeal, colon, rectal, liver, and breast cancers). This means that alcohol doesn’t cause every single case of these cancers, other things do too.
A recent study made some headlines about how much alcohol is safe. Researchers looked specifically at alcohol’s effect on cancer and death. They found that people who have 0-1 drinks per day had the lowest risk.
I want to highlight two of their points:
The results suggested that risk of some cancers increased with each additional alcoholic drink per week consumed.
This means that the lowest risk of cancer (or death) was in people who drink no more than seven drinks per week (average of 0-1 drink per day). And, the more someone drank, the higher their risk of cancer was.
This evidence should not be taken to support a protective effect of light drinking.
Nope, small amounts of alcohol don’t protect you from cancer, rather more than one drink per day increases your risk.
For a bit more detailed explanation of carcinogens and how tiny risks can be blown out of proportion, see my post on Coffee causes cancer! (And other minuscule health risks & benefits blown way out of proportion.)Fun Food Fact: The more alcohol you drink the higher your risk of developing cancer. #funfoodfact #alcohol #cancer Click To Tweet
Fun Food Fact #5: There are lots of ways to reduce your risk of cancer
Alcohol is but one common carcinogen. Here are a bunch of healthy nutrition and lifestyle ways you can reduce your risk of cancer:
CONCLUSIONS: independent panel of experts on cancer prevention
1. Maintain a healthy wt
2. MOVE enough
3. Eat MORE plants
4. ⬇️ fast/junk foods
5. Eat LESS red & processed meats
6. Limit alcohol
7. Eat REAL food – Don’t relay on supplements
8. Breastfeed babies when able pic.twitter.com/o2ZQnzEAmn
— Mike Eisenhart (@mikeeisenhart) August 22, 2018
Then the question becomes, “If alcohol causes cancer, what should we do about it?” Should we ban it or put warning signs on packages? If so, what impact will that have (based on actual public health research, not the theories and opinions you and I both have).
I don’t have a fun fact or answer for this, but here’s an interesting Tweetorial on things to consider:
Fun Food Fact: There are lots of ways to reduce your risk of cancer. #funfoodfact #alcohol #cancer Click To Tweet
As a cancer researcher & science communicator, I have very mixed feelings on proposed #alcohol cancer labelling for drinks. I’ll try here to elucidate why, and you can tell me whether you agree or not (1/n) https://t.co/8UKJsqSSvl
— David Robert Grimes (@drg1985) September 26, 2018
Fun Food Fact #6: Alcohol is not an essential nutrient, you don’t need it
#obvsFun Food Fact: Alcohol is not an essential nutrient, you don't need it. #funfoodfacts #alcohol #cancer Click To Tweet
Signing off and toasting (with or without alcohol): To more science-based fun food facts!
Over to you
Now that you have a few fun facts on alcohol and cancer, what’s your take? Did you already know these? How do you approach health risks? Have new studies, or media coverage of them, changed your opinion or habits?
If you choose not to drink alcohol, or to drink a bit less, I’ve compiled a list of 100+ drink recipes that look like (and may even taste better than) alcohol.
As for me, I’m going to stick with less than seven drinks per week – closer to four actually (two on Friday evening, and two on Saturday evening). What about you? I’d love to know in the comments below!
Want a fairly constant flow of fun food facts? Follow me on Twitter.
This blog post article was first published in September 2018 and updated with more awesomeness in January 2022.
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I’m Leesa Klich, MSc., R.H.N.
Health writer – Blogging expert – Research nerd.
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