Have you ever known someone who eats salads for lunch, skips dessert, drinks beer and spiked punch like water, and can’t understand why she’s gained so much weight? Most people realize that alcohol contributes to their daily calories (we’ve all heard of a”beer belly”) but many underestimate just how much. While carbohydrates and proteins contribute only 4 calories/gram, alcohol contributes 7 calories/gram (fat weighs in at 9 cal/g). Understanding what constitutes “a serving” of alcohol and the basics of alcohol metabolism can help drinkers understand how to minimize adverse effects, including weight gain (alcohol contributes to increased abdominal fat in particular), and other health risks. Click to read on and learn more.
According to Wardlaw’s Perspectives in Nutrition, 38% of adults in North America do not consume alcohol . Nearly as many adults U.S. population (42%) drink 3 or fewer servings of alcoholic beverages each week. Moderate drinkers (defined below) make up 14% of the population and only 4.8% of the population consumes alcohol excessively (more than the daily moderate limit). It may not come as a surprise that the “largest drinking population in North America” and a large component of that 4.8% are college students.
No U.S. government message ever recommends consumption of alcohol but the U.S. Dietary Guidelines do have some words of advice on how to consume it to minimize risk and maximize potential benefits. Yes, there are actually some researched benefits to consuming alcohol in moderation, but before you start drinking to your health keep in mind that the benefits are only predicted in adults aged 45 years or older. Why 45? At first I thought that this just meant that no research had been done in younger populations. It turns out, however, that research has been done and 45 is just the threshold number for when the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption have been shown to surpass the risks. In other words, if you are drinking moderate amounts at a younger age (legal age), it is generally considered safe but don’t assume that you are getting any health benefits from your drink.
What’s considered moderation?
For women limiting drinks to 1 drink per day is advised. For men, 2 drinks per day is considered moderate consumption. Keep in mind these are not daily recommendations, only limits. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines also, for example, advise limiting discretionary calories (of fatty, sugary, foods that provide little nutritional value) but do not actually recommend that people eat doughnuts or deep-fried chicken. It is also important to note that these daily allowances can not accumulate. Your daily allowance of one drink per day does not translate to 7 drinks per week. If you are a woman who does not drink on Wednesday or Thursday, you cannot “save up” your daily allotment and consume 3 drinks on Friday and still consider it “moderate” amount. Your body, particularly your liver, has to deal with the metabolism of alcohol nearly immediately when it enters your body. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you’ve last had a drink, 3 drinks consumed at once is still 3 drinks consumed at once to your liver.
What’s Considered 1 Drink?
“One drink” is generally standardized as 15g of alcohol. The amount of alcohol varies in different kinds of drinks so the serving size is adjusted accordingly. On average, 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, 3.5 oz of a martini, or 1.5 oz of distilled spirits are considered 1 drink. The oz amount varies depending on the percentage of alcohol present which is labeled by the proof. The proof of an alcoholic beverage is twice the percentage of alcohol contained. So an 80 Proof liqueur contains 40% alcohol.
Why Can Men Drink More than Women?
There are 2 major factors that cause women to be more susceptible to the effects of alcohol than men: 1) Women are generally smaller and have less body water. Lean muscle tissue contains nearly 75% water, while fat tissue is only about 20% water. Men tend to have more lean muscle mass and less fat tissue than women. 2) Women have less alcohol dehydrogenase in their stomachs than men. Alcohol dehydrogenase is one of the enzymes required to metabolize alcohol. Because they produce less alcohol dehydrogenase, women absorb around 30% more alcohol directly into the blood stream.
Potential Health Benefits
- In elderly individuals, moderate alcohol consumption may help stimulate appetite.
- In adults 45 and older, moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), specifically by lowering LDL levels, increasing HDL levels and decreasing risk of blood clots. Some studies, however suggest that CVD risk reduction may be attributed to the resveratrol in red wine. Others suggest that consuming moderate amounts of other types of alcohol may result in similar benefits.
- Consumption of alcohol above moderate intake levels increases a consumer’s risk of heart failure, certain forms of cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, heart damage and fluid retention in the lungs.
- The list goes on to include increased blood pressure and risk of stroke, osteoporosis, brain damage, inflammation of the stomach lining, intestinal bleeding, sleep disturbances, lowered immune system, abdominal obesity (and other risks including motor vehicle accidents and suicides. In other words, you are drinking more than the amount defined as moderate, all potential health benefits go out the window.
- Excessive alcohol intake can lead to damage of the pancreas and liver, vitamin and mineral deficiencies
How to Help Minimize Damage
To reduce alcohol-related health problems, stick the moderate limit amounts. If you do go above these limits, reduce the extent of damage by avoiding binge drinking. Binge Drinking is defined as consumption of 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more drinks for women at a single occasion. While you will still increase your risk for developing health problems if you drink less than the binge drink amounts but above the moderate limits (e.g. a woman who drinks 3 drinks), your risk increases dramatically for many problems once you meet or pass the binge drink limits.
To combat issues of dehydration from alcohol, it is advised that drinkers consume at least 1 cup of water for every drink consumed.
To reduce weight-gain issues, keep in mind that alcohol is highly caloric as are many of the mixers used to make drinks. If you would think twice before eating an extra cream-filled, glazed doughnut at the end of the day, you might want to think twice before sipping an extra drink. A 1.5 oz “shot” of liqueur weighs in at about 160 calories. The calories in mixed drinks add up quickly as these usually contain one ore more serving of distilled spirits along with added sugars. A 5 oz serving of red or white wine is usually around 100 calories while a dessert wine is 225 calories for the same amount. A 3.5 oz martini is about 220 calories. Again, drinking within the moderate limits will prevent drinkers from guzzling their way towards weight gain. While 100 calories isn’t terribly difficult to burn off by adding a brisk walk or other physical activity to your daily routine, 400 extra calories (if you drank several servings, perhaps by filling your wine glass instead of sticking to 5 oz) takes much more effort and time to burn.
Other Factors to Consider
Genetic factors, age of onset drinking, and ethnicity also affect how alcohol affects the body. Because alcohol takes priority in the body for the liver to metabolize, excess alcohol consumption impairs the liver’s ability to metabolize drugs and other foreign substances, increasing chances of drug toxicities. Pregnant women should avoid alcohol completely as there is no safe recommended level for consumption. There are many additional health risks linked to alcohol consumption at a young age, such as the early teens. Teens who begin drinking young tend to be at much higher risk for future alcohol addiction and abuse and therefore at much higher risk for the health problems associated with excess consumption. While there are no health benefits shown in individuals below age 45, it is generally considered safe for individuals within the legal drinking age to consume alcohol within the moderate amount limits.