What is Alcohol?
Alcohol is created when yeast, which is a living microscopic single-celled organism related to fungi, metabolizes (eats, digests and excretes) carbohydrates. This process is referred to as fermentation. Fruits are generally used for wines and ciders, while cereals such as barley and rye are generally used for beer; spirits (such as gin or rum) can be made from fruits or cereals. The amount of alcohol in a drink is measures by percentage of alcohol per volume (ABV) and twice the amount of alcohol per volume is known as "proof." A drink that is measured at 50% ABV would be 100 proof.
The amount of alcohol a person can drink safely depends on the type of alcohol they consume. Generally a serving size is considered to be: 4 ounces of wine, 10 ounces of wine cooler, 12 ounces of beer or 1.25 ounces of distilled liquor. If you are not trying to lose weight, the National Institutes of Health recommends that women drink no more than one serving size per day and men no more than two (this is recommended only if you are not pregnant, lactating, have alcohol dependencies, diseases or are taking medications that interact negatively with alcohol).
Pros of Alcohol
Recent studies have shown that small amounts of alcohol can be beneficial for the cardiovascular system in many ways.
-Wines are made from grapes, which contain large amounts of flavonoids and phenolic substances. These help the body fight against cell damage thus protecting us from aging, cancer and heart disease. However, since red wine includes grape skins, which is where these powerful substances are most concentrated, it is considered to be healthier than white wine.
-Alcohol can help stop blood clots from forming (it acts as a blood thinner, similar to aspirin).
-Alcohol reduces "bad cholesterol" (LDL- low density lipoproteins) and increases "good cholesterol" (HDL- high density lipoproteins).
-Alcohol lowers blood pressure, which can reduce your chance of heart attack, stroke and developing heart disease.
Cons: Alcohol, Weight Regulation, and Other Health Risks
Alcohol is a toxin (poison), and because of this the body absorbs and metabolizes it as quickly as possible to ensure a fast exit. The effects of alcohol can be felt almost instantaneously - it takes as little as one minute to reach the brain, and this is when the trouble can start.
-In order to properly metabolize alcohol the liver has to put its normal function of metabolizing fat on hold. While the alcohol is being broken down fat continues to accumulate in the area around the liver, creating a layer of fat in the abdominal area. This is one reason why heavy drinkers have what is often referred to as a "beer belly." This is also why people who drink alcohol can have trouble shedding abdominal fat.
-Even though the liver is very efficient at metabolizing alcohol (1 drink per hour), prolonged use of excessive alcohol can cause serious damage. When the liver is clogged with accumulating fat it becomes less efficient at performing its normal functions and can cause malnutrition. After a prolonged period of excessive alcohol use (or even weekend binging) cirrhosis of the liver develops. This is when the liver becomes so strained that the infected cells die and are replaced with scar tissue, thus hardening the organ. A healthy liver filters 540 gallons of blood per day!
-Drinking alcohol makes losing weight difficult because the body stores alcohol as fat.
-Alcohol stimulates appetite, thus putting you at risk for higher calorie intake.
-Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, making it easier to choose higher fat foods.
-Numerous studies have concluded that alcohol can also increases your risk of numerous types of cancer, accidental death due to judgment impairment (the number one cause of death in the U.S.), miscarriage, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and heart muscle damage, just to name a few.
-Alcohol can also have seriously negative effects on your body if you are taking antibiotics, anticoagulants, antidepressants, diabetes medications, beta-blockers, pain relievers and sleeping pills.
As with everything moderation is the key. There are so many conflicting opinions and so much conflicting data that it makes it difficult to decide what is best for you! When it comes to alcohol, the best choice you can make is to either abstain from use or to not drink more than the recommended amount (if you are trying to lose weight, consult your nutritionist about how much you can drink). It is important to note that to receive the benefits of alcohol, the drinks must be stretched out over a period of time (for example, one week). Binge drinking (saving all of your drinks throughout the week for one or two nights) can counter-act the positive effects of alcohol and do damage to your heart, liver and brain. If you do not drink, there is no reason to start. The cardiovascular benefits of alcohol can also be attained by eating healthfully, exercising regularly and staying relaxed. Drinking grape juice or eating grapes/raisins has the same beneficial antioxidants as a glass of red wine. So when is comes to alcohol, the choice is yours to make... but remember, be good to your body - you can't live without it!
Created by: Kate Haisch, BS
1. History of Alcohol and Drinking around the World by David J. Hanson, Ph.D. Adapted from Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture and Control. Wesport, CT: Praeger, 1995.
2. A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. Copyright © 1995, 2003, 2005 by A. E. Bender and D. A. Bender. All rights reserved.
3. http://www.nih.gov/ (National Institutes of Health)
4. www.eatright.org (American Dietetic Association)