Any excuse for a glass of red? by Emily Burns

Emily Burns

Last week I found out about a new diabetes research study from Denmark, which found that moderate drinking was associated with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes than not drinking at all.

Well, of course the papers loved it. Especially as it went live on a Friday. Millions of people across the UK finishing a long week and dreaming about 5pm rolling along so that they could head to the pub.

And now that glass or two of Shiraz will reduce my risk of Type 2 diabetes as well? Perfect! Erm, not quite.

The study was interesting, there’s no doubt about that. Over 70,000 people took part in Denmark, reporting their alcohol intake and then agreeing to be followed up for just under five years. The researchers then looked at how many of them had developed diabetes (they didn’t define the type, and I’ll come back to that*) during that time.

It turned out that fewer people in the ‘moderate drinkers’ group (a drink three or four days a week) developed diabetes than in the group who didn’t drink at all. This suggests that people who drink moderately may have a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes.

I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean:
1. Those three gin and tonics on Friday night were beneficial for your health
2. You drank that pint on Sunday for the greater good
3. Drinking will stop you from developing Type 2 diabetes

First, the study looked at the whole population of participants. It’s incredibly difficult to take those results and apply them to ourselves on an individual level. So many things affect our risk of Type 2 diabetes. Whether we’re overweight or not, age, our ethnic background, our family history – they all play a role in defining our risk of Type 2. Which means the role of alcohol in that risk will be individual as well.

Second, like with most research, a single study can’t change what we do in real life. To really understand the link between alcohol and Type 2, we would need research studies to follow people for a much longer period of time than five years. We’d also need to continuously monitor their alcohol intake. The researchers in this study asked the participants to report their intake once, but – as many of us will know – the amount of alcohol we consume can change over time.

And third, correlation doesn’t equal causation. Here’s an example. Did you know that between 1999 and 2009, the number of people who drowned by falling into swimming pools in the US correlated with the number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in? And I think it’s safe to say that those two are unrelated…

That’s not to say there isn’t a valid link. Research into alcohol and Type 2 diabetes does suggest an association between the two, it’s just that there are other much stronger risk factors for the condition that we could all do something about. For example, switching to a healthier diet, getting out there to do more physical activity and losing weight if necessary. All are immensely beneficial for your risk of Type 2.

The risk of Type 2 diabetes for each of us is really complex and personal. How old we are, if we are from a Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic background, whether anyone in our family has the condition, where we store fat – they all play a role. And while we can’t do anything about any of those, we can definitely take the stairs a bit more often and maybe sign up to that Zumba class your mate has been pestering you about.

Diabetes is serious. And your risk of Type 2 diabetes is something you might able to change. Find out about your risk with the Diabetes UK Know Your Risk calculator.

* The researchers couldn’t record which type each participant developed. But we know that 90 percent of people with diabetes have Type 2, that the participants of the study were adults (and older adults at that), and Type 1 diabetes hasn’t been linked to lifestyle factors. So it’s safe to say that we’re talking about Type 2 diabetes.

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