Alcohol and nutrition

By Betty Kovacs MS RD

Alcohol is a part of many social occasions, from family dinners to parties, to sporting events and nightcaps. The problems associated with alcoholism are well known, but what about the impact of social drinking or a moderate intake of alcohol? Does alcohol belong in our diet, or does the risk that it presents outweigh any benefits that may be derived from consuming it?
The truth is that no one needs alcohol to live, so regardless of what you’ve heard or want to believe, alcohol is not essential in our diets. We consume alcohol to relax, socialize, and/or celebrate. Depending on your health, age, and the amount that you consume there may be some added health benefits, but the negative consequences when consumed in excess far outweigh these benefits. Many believe that as long as they are not an alcoholic they are not at risk for any health problems. This may or may not be the case depending on many factors. If you want to be able to drink and gain any benefits that exist, while avoiding any of the negative consequences, you need to understand alcohol and learn about the research and guidelines for safely consuming it in moderation.
Good nutrition can help to improve your health and prevent diseases. The essential nutrients that your body needs are carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. The term “essential” means that if you remove one of these nutrients from your diet, there will be a deficiency that causes health problems. Alcohol would not fall under the category of an essential nutrient because not having it in your diet does not lead to any sort of deficiency. Alcoholic beverages primarily consist of water, alcohol (ethanol), and different amounts of sugar. The calories come from the alcohol and sugar and are considered “empty calories” because of the lack of the other essential nutrients. It’s something that you may choose to add to your diet, but it’s not something that you need in it.
Alcohol is actually classified as a drug and is a known depressant. Under this category, it is the most widely used drug in the world. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), in the United States, 17.6 million people — about one in every 12 adults — abuse alcohol or are alcohol-dependent. The majority of the population consumes alcohol moderately or occasionally. You do not need to be an alcoholic for alcohol to interfere with your health and life. The potential to become addicted to alcohol is a serious problem that can affect anyone.
How is alcohol made?
Alcohol, also known as ethanol, is made through a process called fermentation. During fermentation, yeast breaks sugar down into ethanol and carbon dioxide. This process is done without any air present and once complete, the carbon dioxide gas bubbles out into the air, leaving ethanol and water behind. Distilled spirits, such as vodka, rum, gin, and whiskey, are fermented and then distilled to separate the ethanol from the water.
Various sources of sugar are used in these processes, resulting in different forms of alcohol. The sugar from crushed grapes is used to make wine; malted barley is used to make beer; sugar cane or molasses makes rum; grain, potatoes, beets, molasses, and a variety of other plants are used to make vodka.
The technique used to make the beverage will determine the alcohol content. You will see the percentage of alcohol per volume listed on the bottle, as well as the proof of the drink. The proof of a beverage is twice the alcohol content, so a drink with 12% alcohol per volume is 24 proof. Generally, a 12-ounce glass of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, and a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor all contain a ½ ounce of pure alcohol and are considered one drink.
How is alcohol metabolized?
Have you ever wondered why you feel the way that you do after drinking alcohol? The effects that alcohol has on your health start with how it’s metabolized. Once alcohol is in your system, your body makes metabolizing it a priority. That means that it will stop metabolizing anything else in order to take care of the alcohol. This happens because unlike protein, carbohydrates, and fat, there is nowhere for alcohol to be stored in our body.
Once alcohol enters your stomach, up to 20% of it can be absorbed there and go directly into your bloodstream. Within minutes, alcohol will reach your brain and give the feeling of being a stimulant. No other food or beverage in your diet is able to do this. The remaining alcohol goes to your intestines and is absorbed there with the rest of the nutrients. A small amount of alcohol is excreted through sweat, saliva, urine, and your breath, which is how it is detected by a Breathalyzer.
Your liver is the primary site for alcohol metabolism; this is why you can have liver problems from consuming too much alcohol. Alcohol is detoxified and removed from the blood through a process called oxidation. Oxidation prevents the alcohol from accumulating and destroying cells and organs. A healthy liver oxidizes pure ethanol at the rate of about ¼ to ⅓ of an ounce per hour, which is less than 1 ounce of hard liquor.
When you drink alcohol, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will rise rapidly. Within about 10 minutes of having a drink, there’s enough alcohol in your blood to measure. The BAC is determined by how quickly alcohol is absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and excreted. The following factors can influence the BAC:
Food consumed with the alcohol
Chronic alcohol consumption
Drinking pattern
Having one standard drink will result in a peak in BAC within 35 to 45 minutes. A 150-pound person with normal liver function metabolizes about 7 to 14 grams of alcohol per hour, which is approximately 100 to 200 mg/kg of body weight per hour. This is comparable to 8 to 12 ounces of beer or half of an alcoholic drink. Controlling the rate of consumption will give your liver time to metabolize the alcohol and limit your BAC. Once you stop drinking, your blood alcohol level decreases by about 0.01% per hour. You are legally intoxicated with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.8. Time is the only way to eliminate alcohol from your system, so cold showers and coffee will not sober you up. Trying to get someone who is drunk to feel and appear more alert can cause a false sense of sobriety to the person drinking and everyone around them.
What are the negative effects of too much alcohol?
Anyone who has ever experienced a hangover would agree that alcohol use doesn’t always feel good. Unfortunately, most forget how bad it was and find themselves with a hangover more than once. The dangers can go far beyond that and do not only apply to those who drink excessive amounts.
The impact felt by alcohol begins quickly. As your BAC rises you will feel the effects of alcohol, which can include the following:
Reduced inhibitions
Slurred speech
Motor impairment
Memory problems
Concentration problems
Breathing problems
Long-term alcohol consumption can cause problems related to your brain, liver (cirrhosis, steatosis, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis), heart (high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke), pancreas (pancreatitis), and immune system. It can also put you at risk for certain cancers, including those of the mouth, esophagus, throat, breast, and liver. It can cause fetal alcohol syndrome in the infant when consumed by pregnant women. There is no known safe level for alcohol consumption in pregnant and lactating women.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
In 2013, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 10,076 deaths (30.8 percent of overall driving fatalities) in the U.S.
What is alcohol’s effect on weight?
Are you guaranteed to gain weight by consuming alcohol? No. Does this mean that it has no impact on your weight? No. Weight gain comes down to taking in more calories than your body needs. When you consume alcohol, you are consuming calories. When those calories take you above the level that your body needs, you gain weight. Along with the calories, there may be even more ways that alcohol can lead to weight gain.
Research has shown both a positive and negative association between alcohol consumption and weight or BMI. Heavy drinking and binge drinking appear to be most likely to contribute to weight gain while light to moderate intake does not appear to be related. The studies vary in how they define each of these categories, and people are not always accurate about what they report. When it comes to your weight, it will come down to total calories consumed. In food, one gram of protein has 4 kcal; one gram of carbohydrates has 4 kcal; and one gram of fat has 9 kcal. With alcohol, one gram has 7 kcal. This can add up very quickly, especially with mixed drinks.
It’s easy to forget that you can drink as many calories as you eat. In fact, some drinks can have as many calories as a meal! Check out how many calories you can get from your favorite cocktail below. Remember to check the serving size and to add the calories from any juice or soda that is combined with the liquor:
Alcoholic drink            Calories
Beer, lite, 12 oz.            100
Beer, regular, 12 oz.        150
Frozen daiquiri, 4 oz.        216
Gin, 1.5 oz.            110
Mai tai, 4 oz.            310
Margarita, 4 oz.            270
Rum, 1.5 oz.            96
Vodka, 1.5 oz.            96
Whiskey, 1.5 oz.            105
Wine spritzer, 4 oz.        49
Wine, dessert, sweet, 4 oz.        180