A recent report has suggested that moderate alcohol consumption can be a health benefit. Have the medics gone mad? Ben McFarland investigates the good news
January is a terrible month. After all the festive frolicking, gluttony and excess rarely seen since Roman times, money and belts become tighter and everything looks bleak.
And just when you've come to terms with misery being your only real companion, friends, family and workmates compound your gloom by gleefully informing you that they have either "made a new start" or "wiped the slate clean".
They embark on a righteous health drive that includes eating salad and lentils, joining the local gym and, most disturbingly, abstaining from drinking booze and coming down the pub.
More fool, though, those who are unaware that the path to eternal life and a sylph-like figure can just as easily go via the local pub! In fact, abstaining from drinking alcohol for a couple of weeks (and let's face it, that's all it will be) may benefit their wallets, but history and medical research has shown that it won't necessarily improve their health.
The medicinal properties of alcohol are mentioned almost 200 times in the Old and New Testaments, Ancient Egyptian tombs are adorned with pictures of wine being made and drunk, and soldiers in the Roman army were always given red wine to protect them from the kind of ailments and infections that wiped out the Barbarians in the cold winter months. Hundreds of years later, it is generally agreed that moderation (defined in the medical sphere as half a bottle of red wine or two pints of lager or beer every day) is the key word when it comes to drinking.
In fact, until recently, the NHS was a major customer for Guinness as it prescribed the black stuff as an appetite stimulant, relaxant, sleep inducer and mild laxative.
However, there are those within medical circles today that recommend steering clear of alcohol altogether!
In addition to the short-term physical pitfalls of excessive drinking such as reduced peripheral vision, decreased visual and hearing awareness, slowed reaction time, impaired concentration and motor skills, dissipation of fear, increased risk-taking behaviours, stimulated urination, induced sleep and, most worryingly, decreased sexual function, doctors point to the array of long-term physical hazards including sclerosis of the liver, fetal alcohol syndrome, high blood pressure, anorexia, gout, memory loss and, er, memory loss.
In the UK there are 20 deaths a year from alcohol poisoning or vomit inhalation, 30,000 deaths a year from liver damage, accidents and suicide caused by drinking, and one in three people in this country have been involved in or suffered alcohol-induced violence. However, it is important to point out that these alarming figures are linked to heavy or binge, rather than moderate, drinking.
There is an overwhelming bank of medical evidence that claims drinking both beer and wine in sensible quantities can benefit your health considerably. According to Dr Thomas Stuttaford, medical correspondent for The Times, the moderate consumption of alcohol, red wine in particular, can combat a number of ailments and life-threatening conditions.
Addressing trustees of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in London last week, Stuttaford said: "It's been proven that alcohol weakens an organism in the gut called helicobacter pylori which is responsible for causing stomach ulcers.
"Research also shows that moderate drinking will increase chances of living longer as when you drink alcohol, your blood fat is carried in a less dangerous way thus reducing the risk of heart disease.
"By drinking a couple of glasses of red wine in the evening you reduce the levels of low density cholesterol, which is the killer, and the platelets which form blood clots become less sticky."
There are also greater quantities of antioxidants, properties essential for a healthy immune system, in red wine than in other alcoholic drinks such as white wine, beer or spirits.
"Red wine protects us from damaging oxidising agents in the same way that leaded paint prevents iron gates from becoming rusty," added Stuttaford.
"And relatively young wines grown in a moist but warm climate, such as France and Chile, are more beneficial as in hotter, drier climates the fungus on the skin of the grape, which is a rich source of anti-oxidants, gets baked and dries up."
Medical research has revealed that moderate drinkers of all types of alcohol are not only less likely to develop osteoporosis, diabetes, Alzheimer's, gallstone formation and the majority of cancers, but also score higher in IQ tests than both heavy drinkers and tee-totallers.
It is also better to drink regularly and sensibly than to punctuate long periods of abstention with sessions of heavy drinking. "The worst thing you can do is to drink nothing all week and then binge drink at the weekend. Similarly, detox programmes do more harm than good as you don't reap the benefits of alcohol, nor do you give your liver enough time to recover," warned Stuttaford.
And unless you're the unlucky "chosen" one, you needn't worry about your liver either. According to Stuttaford, six out of seven people boast the genetic make-up needed to protect your liver from the effects of both sclerosis and "fatty infiltration".
Although wine is more readily associated with healthy living, the benefits of alcohol to your health are by no means confined to the grape.
A new booklet, fittingly entitled Benefits of Moderate Beer Consumption, has been published by the Brewers of Europe following a seminar comprising of a number of leading academics and health specialists, (including the even more fittingly titled Professor Hoffmeister from Germany).
It reveals that, per drink (of equivalent alcohol content), beer contains more than twice as many antioxidants as white wine (but only half the amount of red wine) and the malt, hops, barley and water provide the essential vitamins and minerals needed for a balanced diet.
Research has also shown that the antioxidants in hops have the potential to help fight cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, breast cancer and thyroid cancer.
Following work by the British Institute of Innkeeping and the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association, Hampshire-based brewer George Gale is set to embark on a campaign extolling the healthy virtues of its own brands.
Marketing manager Derek Beaves said: "Even though there is no single dominant brand, there seems to be a lobby with red wine that is very active in promoting its benefit to our health.
"So, we thought it was about time we redressed the balance and start shouting about the fact that cask ale is healthy."
For those calorie counters desperate to stem the Christmas spread, it is the potential minefield associated with the peripheries of drinking that provides the most danger. When people have had a drink or two they're much more likely to give in to the temptation of peanuts, crisps, pork scratchings and (in extreme cases) kebabs.
However, in terms of drinks Stuttaford points to white wine and straight spirits as the preferred choice.
In fact, unless it is incorporated into a balanced and healthy diet, beer is unlikely to turn the archetypal CAMRA member into Cameron Diaz.
Few would argue that it would be difficult to promote cask ale as a potential slimming agent.
A pint of beer contains twice as many calories as a 125ml glass of champagne or dry white wine, while drinking a 250ml bottle of strong ale is the equivalent to four shots of spirits.
"The greatest calories are found in beer and wine. People tend to get a glass of gin and then add solid sugar in the form of orange or tonic, and are then surprised when they put on weight!" said Stuttaford. "When I want to lose weight I drink malt whisky with water."
If publicans properly convey this link between good health and drinking to their customers, it could provide the pe