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Alcohol and Its Implication on Nutrition and Overall Health


Dry January has come and gone. As we move further away from New Year’s resolutions and intentions for our health that we committed to just months ago, it may not be a bad idea to evaluate where we are with our personal goals and commit to making continued changes for long term optimal health. Alcohol consumption is often overlooked by most as an area where small changes can make a big impact on our overall wellness and nutrition. It may be because of how socially acceptable drinking has become or due to that fact that society glamorizes it as a way to unwind that we tend to fall into the trap of “if you’re not drinking, then how are you celebrating, commiserating with others, relaxing on the weekend or escaping life’s problems?” Intellectually, we know better than to think that alcohol is a necessity for our daily lives, but it is not uncommon for people to drink more than they would if they knew all the facts.


Alcohol and Nutrition

Alcohol is defined as a chemical substance made by the process of fermentation that uses sugars and yeast. There are different types of alcohol. The one used in drinks is called ethyl alcohol or ethanol. It is devoid of protein, minerals and vitamins and actually is responsible for inhibiting the absorption of vital nutrients.


Nutrition Analysis

Alcohol contains 7 calories/gram, about the same amount of calories per gram as pure fat. The calories that come from alcohol are classified as “empty calories” meaning they provide no nutritional value. Additionally, there is no nutritional benefit to our bodies from ingesting alcohol.


Associated Risks

Drinking alcohol in any quantity can damage your overall health and negatively impact your body’s nutritional status. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is ongoing data collection to support that the more alcohol one consumes, the higher their risk is of death due to various causes. Alcohol is known to increase one’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease, liver disease, digestive disorders as well as cancer, especially mouth/throat, esophagus, colon/rectal, liver and breast in women.


Is There Such a Thing as Drinking Responsibly?

A standard drink in the United States is defined as 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This generally equates to:

  • 12 once beer (at 5% alcohol)

  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (containing 7% alcohol)

  • 5 ounces of wine

  • 1 1/2 ounces of distilled liquor

Moderate use of alcohol as defined by the CDC as part of their Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol is defined as 1 drink or less a day for women and 2 drinks or less a day for men. The guidelines note that there are people who should not drink at all which include pregnant women, people under the age of 21, those taking certain medications that adversely interact with or lose their effectiveness when mixed with alcohol and people who are recovering from alcohol use disorder.


Complications and Health Related Issues

In addition to the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, liver disease, digestive issues and cancers, there are other short term and long term effects of alcohol consumption that you should be aware of.


Decreased Nutrient Absorption

The major nutrients affected by alcohol consumption are thiamine (B1), B12, folic acid, and zinc. Alcohol inhibits the absorption of these vital nutrients by interfering with the body’s normal digestion process. When nutritive food and beverages are consumed, the nutrients from the digested foods are absorbed by the blood from the intestines and then processed by the liver. Alcohol damages the cells that line the stomach and the intestines preventing proper digestion from occurring.


Disruption of Gut Microbiome

Chronic alcohol use creates an imbalance of microflora in the gut which promotes an abundance of harmful bacteria in the stomach. This disruption in healthy gut bacteria can cause immediate GI distress as early as the day ofter alcohol consumption which may cause only mild symptoms such as diarrhea, cramping, gas and bloating. It will also worsen over time with chronic alcohol use and may cause more negative health effects such as loss of appetite, abdominal pain, pancreatitis, gastritis and stomach cancer.


Impaired Immune Function

Our immune systems are made up of two parts; the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. The innate immune system is responsible for responding to viruses, unhealthy bacteria, and other microorganisms that cause diseases to occur. The adaptive immune system is responsible for stopping things from occurring a second time. It is viewed as the “memory” of immunity and prevents us from contracting the chicken pox virus twice. Alcohol causes both short term and long term immune impairment of the innate and adaptive immune system. This is not just true for those who consume large amounts of alcohol, but moderate use as well.


Conclusion

Educating yourself on the effects of alcohol and the impact it has on nutritional health is important and empowers the consumer to make informed choices when it comes to what you put in your body. Alcohol’s provision of empty calories, ability to increased the risk of a number of diseases and its negative impact on the body’s immune response are just a few facts that may spark your interest to learn more about this topic. Keep an eye out for a live webinar on this subject coming in the Fall 2023 at Dietitians on Demand Wild Week of Webinars (WWOW).

References:

Alcohol and Cancer Risk. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/alcohol Accessed on 2/13/23


Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm Accessed on 2/13/23



Understanding Alcohol and Our Immune System. Available at https://adf.org.au/insights/alcohol-immune-system/ Accessed on 2/15/23


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