When you’re making decisions about changing your diet and lifestyle for the better, the issue of drinking is bound to come up whether you’re an occasional or frequent drinker. You might be wondering if limiting alcohol can have a positive impact on your health and diet. After all, some researchers say that a glass of wine a day can help keep your heart healthy.
Here’s the thing: yes, red wine is popularly touted as good for your health when consumed in small amounts, but you should only consider it after balancing the risks. In a study conducted on just over 107,000 people between the ages of 24 and 97, it was found that people who drink even one “small” alcoholic drink every day were 16% more likely than non-drinkers to experience an irregular heartbeat. This percentage of risk goes significantly up the more drinks they regularly had.
The small drinks were defined as anything that contains 12 grams of ethanol, i.e., 1.5 oz of spirits, 5 oz of wine, and 12 oz of beer.
The point is, moderate drinking can be “low risk” – but not for everyone.
How Drinking Can Compromise Your Diet
For decades, the medical community has been arguing over the merits and demerits of alcohol. Some say it’s poison, some say it’s a tonic. In actuality, it can be both, depending on the amount and frequency.
There is evidence that moderate drinking (1 standard drink a day) can be beneficial for the heart and circulatory system, and probably protects against gallstones and type 2 diabetes in some cases. On the other hand, heavy drinking is a leading cause of preventable death in most countries. Alcohol misuse is implicated in nearly one-third of all fatal traffic accidents in the US. Drinking too much can also damage multiple organs, contribute to violence and depression, raise the risk of developing several types of cancer, and wreck interpersonal relationships.
How does this relate to the diet? According to researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), when people drink more alcohol, they are likely to eat less fruit and tend to consume more calories in the form of unhealthy or junk foods.
The study of more than 15,000 American adults found that increased alcohol consumption was associated with reduced diet quality. The combination of poor diet and excessive or binge drinking can further increase health risks.
Simply put, when you consume alcoholic drinks, you’re likely to make poorer food choices, thus reducing your Healthy Eating Index scores. The study essentially found that those who drink the largest quantities of alcoholic beverages have the poorest quality diets. In addition to reduced fruit intake, the researchers discovered that increased alcohol use was also associated with a reduced intake of milk and whole grains, especially among men.
How Alcohol Affects Your Weight & General Well-Being
Drinking alcohol influences your body in many ways, including:
Risk of Malnutrition
When you’re drinking large amounts of alcohol, your body senses that its caloric requirements have been met. This produces a diminished demand or craving for other foods. While alcohol contains about 7 calories/gram, these calories have zero protein, carbs, vitamins, fats, or minerals that are essential to maintain body functions.
Plus, alcohol affects the gastrointestinal tract in a negative way, promoting poor nutrition. It aggravates the gut wall, leading to ulceration and inflammation. This can cause poor absorption of nutrients and an unhealthy gastrointestinal tract. In simplest terms, your body fails to properly break down the food the way it should.
Heavy alcohol consumption contributes to dietary deficiencies by replacing foods necessary for getting vital nutrients and by hindering your body’s digestion, metabolism, or storage of these nutrients.
Fluctuations in Your Weight
Some clinical research indicates that light to moderate drinkers either weigh the same or less than those who don’t drink at all. But other studies found that people who have a few drinks with their meals weigh more than those who abstain.
If you want to lose weight, trying to lay off alcohol to reduce your calorie intake is a good idea. But if you don’t want to give it up completely, limiting alcohol intake and drinking in moderation can also be a good approach. An epidemiologic study has noted that people who drink moderately tend to be leaner than people who are heavy drinkers or even nondrinkers (but similar results can be obtained by drinking grape juice).
We don’t yet know why that is, but it could have something to do with how alcohol is broken down in the body. When you drink alcohol, your body doesn’t process it via the usual pathways that are followed by carbs, proteins, and fats. As a result, some of the calories present in alcohol (each gram contains 7 calories) may be wasted rather than used. And when you’re drinking along with a meal, it can slow down your eating so you feel fuller sooner.
Some might be wondering if alcohol doesn’t cause weight gain, why do some people sport the infamous “beer belly”? As we said earlier, the key is in the dosage, i.e., the amount of alcohol consumed. People who drink heavily or go on drink binges often are more likely to get the belly bulge.
Also, keep in mind that when you sit down to a high-fat meal and wash it all down with alcoholic drinks, you have a higher chance of overeating. This was reported by a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, where researchers found that alcohol seems to modify preference for certain types of nutrients.
Risk of Heart Problems
Along with other risk factors, high blood triglycerides due to alcohol consumption may increase the odds of developing problems with the heart. With people who have high blood alcohol concentration, their liver generates more triglycerides that keep circulating in the blood.
However, research shows that light to moderate drinkers have a lower risk of heart disease than people who don’t drink at all. Drinking small amounts of alcohol every now and then may actually help reduce inflammation and raise your good cholesterol. The same can be said of grape juice though.
This is not to say that you should start drinking to improve your heart health, but if you enjoy a glass of wine in moderation it may help keep your heart fit.
Risk of Cancer
Evidence suggests that heavy drinking may be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. A study found that women who have 3 drinks per week have a 15% higher chance of developing breast cancer compared to women who don’t drink at all. It is estimated that alcohol increases estrogen levels and other hormones associated with hormone-receptor-positive cancer in breasts. It may also contribute to cancer by damaging DNA in cells.
If women in your family are at an increased risk of breast cancer, quitting or limiting alcohol intake is a good idea. In a study of 2,866 women with an average age of 36, it was discovered that those with a family history of breast cancer who drank 1 or more alcoholic beverages every day and ate less than 400 micrograms of folate daily had double the risk of breast cancer.
Risk of Brain Disorders
Alcohol can impair the central nervous system in many ways. The most notable effect is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a disorder where a person becomes unable to learn new information or remember recent events. It generally results from a deficiency of Vitamin B1 (thiamine), which can be caused by heavy drinking and poor nutrition.
How to Drink While Protecting Your Health
Here are a few simple ways to enjoy drinking without letting your diet plan fail:
Set Drinking Limits
Pick a certain amount of drinks you want to have for the week and hold yourself accountable. If you have a busy social life, save up your allotted drinks for those occasions.
If you like having a drink with your meal, set a limit on that as well. Do you usually have a glass during and after your dinner? If so, replace post-meal alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic options like tea or coffee. Keep in mind that drinking during dinner slows down the metabolism so limiting intake to one drink only can help you digest. If you have the habit of enjoying a glass of wine while cooking dinner, make a choice – either you can have that glass before or during your meal. Also, try to schedule alcohol-free days in a week.
Eat Before You Drink
When you drink on an empty stomach, it enters your bloodstream way more quickly. That’s why it’s so important to always eat before you drink. What you eat before having alcohol can have a great effect on how you feel later on. Don’t reach for spicy, greasy foods like fries or pizza. Your meal should be balanced with complex carbs (like whole-wheat bread), healthy fats (like avocado and nuts), and proteins (like fish, egg, or chicken).
Drink Plenty of Water
Consider making your first drink of the night a cold glass of water; this will also ensure that you’re not quenching your thirst with alcohol. Pace your drinking with water or juice as well, meaning you have 1–2 non-alcoholic drinks for every alcoholic drink you have. Since alcohol is a diuretic, this will help restore the fluids in your body, mitigating the impact of alcohol consumption.
If wine is your drink of choice, you can reduce the amount of alcohol in half by preparing a spritzer and adding sparkling water to your wine. Avoid cocktails made with a wide variety of liquors and spirits. Just take one ounce of liquor and then add soda water or sparkling water to it.
Stay Away from Mixed Drinks
As delicious as cocktails are, they contain unhealthy amounts of sugar and carbs you don’t need. Some might think a piña colada is healthy because it’s made with coconut cream, pineapple juice, and rum, which has zero carbs. While rum may not have any carbs, the drink as a whole contains 30–40 grams of sugar due to the fruit juices.
Select drinks that don’t contain any added sugar, syrups, soda, juice, tonic water, or energy drinks. If you must add something, choose a naturally sweet alternative like coconut water or brewed peach tea. Steer clear from frozen drinks like margaritas, vodka slushes, hurricanes, daiquiris, etc. They can be drunk quickly and would increase your blood alcohol levels quickly.
Take It Slow
The faster you drink and the more you drink, the more damage you cause to your body. Your stomach absorbs alcohol at a rate faster than your liver can metabolize it. Take slow, small sips and savor your drink to ensure your body gets a chance to break it down properly. Try to order your drink on the rocks whenever you can and eat protein-rich foods while you are drinking.
Detox After a Big Night Out
If you overindulged despite your best intentions, start the next day by drinking lots of water to flush out the toxins and replenish your body with nourishing foods. Have a healthy breakfast of whole-grain toast, avocado, eggs, and maybe a salad. Eating protein and healthy fats after your heavy alcohol consumption will help stabilize your blood pressure and sugar levels. Also, schedule a workout or other activities to boost your mood with a release of endorphins.
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