Consuming alcohol with meals was associated with a 14% lower risk of type 2 diabetes compared to consuming alcohol without eating food, according to new research.

The analysis of health data for nearly 312,400 current drinkers was presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Conference 2022. 

It found that during an average of nearly 11 years of follow-up, about 8,600 of the adults in the study developed type 2 diabetes and the potential benefit of moderate drinking on type 2 diabetes risk was evident only among the people who drank alcohol during meals, although the specific time of meals was not collected in this study.

The beneficial association between alcohol drinking with meals and type 2 diabetes was most common among the participants who drank wine versus other types of alcohol.

Consuming wine, beer and liquor had different associations with type 2 diabetes risk. While a higher amount of wine intake was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, a higher amount of beer or liquor was associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

In this study researchers specifically examined the effect moderate drinking may have related to new-onset type 2 diabetes among all study participants over about 11 years (between 2006 and 2010). Data was reviewed for nearly 312,400 adults from the UK Biobank who self-reported themselves as regular alcohol drinkers.

The participants did not have diabetes, cardiovascular diseases or cancer at the time of study enrollment. People who reduced their alcohol consumption due to illness, doctor's advice or pregnancy were excluded from the study. The average age of participants was about 56 years, slightly more than half of the adults were women and 95% were white adults.

Alcohol consumption on health is a double-edged sword

Study author Hao Ma, a biostatistical analyst at the Tulane University Obesity Research Center in New Orleans, said: “The effects of alcohol consumption on health have been described as a double-edged sword because of its apparent abilities to cut deeply in either direction – harmful or helpful, depending on how it is consumed. Previous studies have focused on how much people drink and have had mixed results. Very few studies have focused on other drinking details, such as the timing of alcohol intake.

“Clinical trials have also found that moderate drinking may have some health benefits, including on glucose metabolism. However, it remains unclear whether glucose metabolism benefits translate into a reduction of type 2 diabetes.

“The message from this study is that drinking moderate amounts of wine with meals may prevent type 2 diabetes if you do not have another health condition that may be negatively affected by moderate alcohol consumption and in consultation with your doctor."

Despite the findings of this robust analysis of healthy drinkers, the relationship between alcohol consumption and new-onset type 2 diabetes remains controversial, according to Robert H. Eckel, a past president (2005-2006) of the American Heart Association, who was not involved in the study.

“These data suggest that it’s not the alcohol with meals but other ingredients in wine, perhaps antioxidants, that may be the factor in potentially reducing new-onset type 2 diabetes. While the type of wine, red versus white, needs to be defined, and validation of these findings and mechanisms of benefit are needed, the results suggest that if you are consuming alcohol with meals, wine may be a better choice."

A study limitation is that most of those participating were self-reported white adults and of European descent. It is unknown whether the findings can be generalized to other populations.