Julie Whittington, RD

Healthy tips from a Registered Dietitian

Alcohol – good for your health or a risk?

Alcohol can be a tough topic of conversation for many people, as it goes beyond the lines of nutrition and enters into our values.  There are many thoughts and feelings that arise about the topic.  Some are thoughts about the physical self, such that alcohol benefits or harms health.  Others stem from religious beliefs or emotional feelings.

That being said, I do believe there can be a time and place for healthful alcohol consumption for many people.  Much research is done on the topic, for sure.

It seems moderate consumption of alcohol offers certain cardiovascular health benefits such as improvements to cholesterol levels.  And, for most people, moderate consumption appears to offer health benefits.  However, it may also harm health.  For instance, consumption of any kind appears to increase the risk of conditions such as colon and breast cancer.  And, overconsumption can lead to an addiction and serious health consequences such as cirrhosis of the liver.

No food or drink is perfect, but rather you need a balance of different foods and drinks to nourish your life.  When it comes to alcohol, if you choose to drink it, it should only make up a small portion of your beverage selections, and only be consumed along with a balanced diet.

If you do choose to consume alcohol, here are a few nutritional recommendations:

  • Limit consumption to one alcoholic beverage per day for women or two alcoholic beverages per day for men.  One drink is equivalent to a 5-ounce glass of wine, 12-ounce beer or 1.5-ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.  Measure your next glass of wine – you may be surprised at what 5-ounces looks like in a wine glass.
  • If you choose to drink, know that the cardiovascular benefits seem to exist primarily when one or two beverages are consumed per day consistently, rather than just drinking occasionally or binge drinking on the weekends.
  • Cardiovascular benefits seem to disappear if an individual consumes more than the recommended amounts.
  • Opt for red wine or dark beer if you seek benefit from the phytonutrients within the alcoholic beverages.  For example, red wine contains resveratrol and substances called flavonoids that appear to be quite healthful.
  • Never start to drink alcohol simply to attempt to improve heart health.  Alcohol can be addictive and cause many health problems.
  • If you do drink alcohol, do so at the same time as you are eating food.
  • Never restrict calories during the day in order to have alcohol “calories” later in the day.
  • Avoid alcohol if you: (1) are younger than 21; (2) struggle with keeping your consumption only to moderate levels (such as with alcoholism); (3) are pregnant or trying to become pregnant (alcohol has been shown to affect fertility and can increase the risk of spontaneous abortion or other detrimental health effects to a fetus); (4) are breastfeeding – it takes about 2 hours for one alcoholic beverage to be out of your system; never give a baby breastmilk with traces of alcohol in it; (5) are taking medication (or have a medical condition) with which alcohol is contraindicated; (6) will be driving a car/operating a machine/etc. before the alcohol is out of your system.  Pick a designated driver if you choose to drink.
  • Talk to your doctor if you are not sure whether alcohol can fit healthfully into your lifestyle.
  • Visit reputable sites to learn more about the health risks and health benefits of alcohol.  Examples include www.mayoclinic.com and www.cdc.gov/alcohol.
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