Alcohol in moderation is one of the few things precisely defined. Moderation is one of those words with some ambiguity to it. It means something different depending on the subject, person and pre-existing habits.
However, when it comes to alcohol, the Dietary Guideline is specific: “if alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation – up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men – and only by adults of legal drinking age.” This is also the guideline the American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association, and the American Heart Association follow. But before you are either horrified by this recommendation, or preparing your own drink right now, there are important aspects of this over-arching guideline that are often overlooked.
IF alcohol is consumed: Not everyone chooses to consume alcohol and that is fine. People may wonder why this is even part of any guidelines. Alcohol is legal and people do choose to consume it, so there is a guideline for it. If you don’t consume alcohol, there is no need to start. If you enjoy alcohol a few times are year or a few times a month, no need to up your intake.
It should be consumed in moderation: Here is where things get more defined in what is meant by moderation. Alcohol in moderation is defined as up to one drink for women and two drinks for men per day. “Up to” means you can have less, but it is not good to have more.
The difference in the guidelines between women and men has to do with a specific enzyme that helps break down alcohol and it is less active in women. Therefore, women need more time to metabolize or breakdown alcohol compared to men. It is not related to body size or weight.
One drink defined: “One drink” is further defined and it isn’t what most people think it is. What is poured is not always the same as the one drink definition.
One drink is defined as the amount that contains 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol, also known as ethanol. Even among differing types of beer, wine and distilled spirits, the amount of pure alcohol will vary per ounce depending on the alcohol by volume (ABV).
The one drink equivalent goes by an average for the various types of alcohol. This puts one drink as:
12 ounces of beer, 5% ABV
5 ounces of wine, 12% ABV
1½ ounces (one shot) of distilled spirits, 40% ABV (or 80 proof)
If the ABV or proof is higher, than the one drink equivalent would be less volume.
While drink sizes are defined, is that what is actually consumed? Consider that many places that serve alcohol will offer beer in sizes greater than 12 ounces, use wine glasses that hold far more than 5 ounces, and some cocktails have more than one shot in them.
Additionally, some believe that one type of alcohol is more or less harmful than another, but this just is not true. If the one drink equivalent is followed, then a shot of whiskey isn’t better or worse than an ale or red wine.
Per day: The guideline of “per day” is another important point. This is a use-it or lose-it situation. Having one or two drinks per day is not an average and not something that carries over to be saved for the weekend or special occasion. Abstaining Monday through Thursday, then having 2 to 5 drinks on Friday, Saturday and Sunday is not the same as having the daily drink.
Calories in alcohol : Alcohol is itself a source of calories. While carbohydrates are in beer and wine, most of the calories come from alcohol. Alcohol has 7 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate, 4 calories per gram of protein, and 9 calories per gram of fat. If there is a higher alcohol content, the calories will be higher.
When considering mixed drinks, calories from the mixer count. Liqueurs are higher in calories due to added sugars.
In general, the calories in one drink will be:
150 calories in 12 ounces of beer, 5% ABV
120 calories in 5 ounces of wine, 12% ABV
100 calories in 1½ ounces (one shot) of distilled spirits, 40% ABV (or 80 proof)
Health Effects: While there are some suggested health benefits of consuming alcohol, it must always be considered in the context of an overall lifestyle. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and abstaining from tobacco will do more for overall improved health than moderate alcohol consumption.
One of the most immediate effects that alcohol has on the body is reduced brain function. Even with a low intake of alcohol, impaired judgement and reasoning can occur. This may explain why, despite education and campaigns to not drink and drive, it still happens.
Alcohol can interfere with sleep patterns. While people may feel they go to sleep easier, the sleep is often disrupted and less restful.
Alcohol in all forms is a known human carcinogen – a substance that is known to cause cancer. There is an increased risk of many types of cancer, even with moderate consumption, including breast, colorectal, liver and esophageal cancers.
Because of the calories in alcohol, and the increase in food intake that often accompanies it, weight gain is another potential side effect.
Alcohol should not be taken in conjunction with many medications, either prescription or over the counter. The liver has a lot of work to do in getting nutrients from our food distributed throughout the body and breaking down medications so they can do their job. When alcohol enters the body, the liver deals with the alcohol first, and medications may not be able to do their job properly.
If you choose to consume alcohol, be safe, be smart, and don’t assume it is all good.
Shelley Rael, MS RDN LD is a registered dietitian nutritionist in Albuquerque and can often be found discovering new food and drink experiences in New Mexico and beyond. She is the author of “The One-Pot Weight Loss Plan” being released December 3 and now available for pre-order on amazon.com and. You can more about her at shelleyrael.com.