Wondering if you can drink alcohol and still maintain a healthy lifestyle? Read on to learn more about healthy drinking, from a Registered Dietitian!
A healthy lifestyle includes lots of vegetables, exercise, and water, and limits processed foods, saturated fat, and sodium. But where does alcohol fit into the mix?
As a Registered Dietitian, I’m here to tell you that alcohol can be part of a healthy lifestyle if you enjoy drinking. Drinking often goes hand in hand with life’s celebrations, pairs well with food, and helps relieve stress.
Continue reading to learn how to make healthy choices when it comes to drinking alcohol.
What is alcohol?
Alcohol is considered a drug, and contains the active ingredient ethanol. Ethanol is produced through fermenting grains, fruits, and other sugars. Fermented alcoholic drinks include wine, beer, and cider. Fermented alcohol is distilled to make hard alcohol. Distilled alcoholic beverages contain a higher concentration of alcohol by volume (ABV).
Humans have been producing and drinking alcohol for thousands of years. It’s been used for medicinal purposes, religious and cultural celebrations. Today, alcohol still plays a large role in many cultures.
Nutritional value of alcohol
Alcohol is considered its own macronutrient, and clocks in at 7 calories per gram. For reference, carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram, and fat has 9 calories per gram. So, alcohol is pretty energy dense.
Alcohol has very little nutritional value, unlike the other three macronutrients that provide a variety of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.
When you drink a fermented alcoholic beverage, you might get some nutritional benefits from the food the drink was made from (like resveratrol in red wine). But, you can also gain the same benefits from eating the food in its whole food form. Resveratrol is found in grapes, berries, plums, and apples, for example.
Digestion and absorption is a complex process. Alcohol is not digested in the same way food is. When we drink alcohol, it does not go through the digestive system like food. Instead, it’s absorbed right into the bloodstream and travels to all our organs. Alcohol gets absorbed more quickly on an empty stomach, as food can slow down its absorption speed. As with all calories we consume, any alcohol consumed in excess of our energy needs is stored as fat.
Alcohol metabolism occurs mostly in the liver, but it can also be metabolized in other body tissues. There are several metabolic pathways available to break down alcohol, but the most common uses enzymes to break alcohol down into acetaldehyde, then into acetate, and finally into CO2 and water for easy elimination.
The problem with this? The substance acetaldehyde is a toxin that has negative effects on the body and can damage the liver. Even though it is only present temporarily before it’s broken down into acetate, acetaldehyde can still produce toxic effects (1).
When we drink large amounts of alcohol, another system takes over, which converts alcohol to compounds called reactive oxygen species (ROS). These ROS cause oxidative stress in the body when they exist in excess.
With the knowledge that alcohol produces toxic substances in the body, it’s important to make responsible drinking decisions to protect your health from the negative effects of alcohol. But what does that look like?
For a long time, research has shown alcohol consumption has a “J shaped curve” for mortality. With a J shaped curve, we assume moderate alcohol consumption is better than zero alcohol consumption and better than heavy alcohol consumption.
Example of the J shaped curve and mortality risk with alcohol consumption (2)
But, this research hasn’t always taken into account other variables that might affect mortality besides alcohol consumption. For example, alcohol abstainers may be biased towards poor health (3).
Based on the information we know about alcohol and mortality, here are the current recommendations from the latest Dietary Guidelines:
“If alcohol is consumed, it should be in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men—and only by adults of legal drinking age.
For those who choose to drink, moderate alcohol consumption can be incorporated into the calorie limits of most healthy eating patterns. The Dietary Guidelines does not recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason (4).”
To summarize, if you do choose to drink, do so in moderation to protect your health. And if you choose not to drink, there is no need to include alcohol in your diet to gain health benefits.
Healthy drinking standards from a Registered Dietitian
As an RD, and a person who occasionally drinks alcohol, there are a few guidelines I recommend to keep alcohol consumption in check, if you choose to drink alcohol.
1. Choose drinks with minimal added sugar.
To avoid excess calories from alcohol being stored as fat, choose drinks with little added sugar. Sugar can present itself in many forms in alcoholic drinks – simple syrup, agave, fruit juice, soda, and pre-made cocktail mixes, to name a few.
Here are some lower sugar beverages to sip on:
Wine – red, white, rosé, and even champagne!
Margarita without agave
Mojito minus simple syrup
Rum and Diet coke
2. Maintain boundaries for yourself regarding when, how, and why you drink.
Because we build up a tolerance to alcohol, you might find yourself reaching for a little more every time you drink. Also, it can be a slippery slope into alcohol dependency, since it is an addictive substance. Think about setting up boundaries for yourself when it comes to drinking to keep your relationship with alcohol healthy and manageable. Some boundary ideas are:
Don’t use alcohol as a reward
Avoid drinking alone
Don’t use alcohol to numb negative feelings or as a coping mechanism for stress, loneliness, or depression
Limit yourself to 2 drinks per drinking occasion
Don’t allow others to pressure you to drink when you don’t feel like it
If you feel yourself NEEDING alcohol instead of just wanting it, there is help. Find resources from the NIH using their Alcohol Treatment Navigator tool.
3. Stay hydrated with water when you drink alcohol.
Drinking alcohol can lead to dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means your body loses fluids through urination at a faster rate than usual.
Make sure to drink adequate water while you’re drinking alcohol to avoid dehydration. One tip is to drink one glass of water per alcoholic beverage. I also like to drink a full glass of water before I go to bed on nights I drink.
4. Don’t drink on an empty stomach.
Without any food in your stomach, alcohol is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream to travel to all your organs. That’s why you may notice you start to feel intensified side effects of your drink when you haven’t eaten.
To avoid this, eat a balanced meal before (or with) your drink. The food in your digestive tract will slow down the alcohol absorption speed, so you won’t feel woozy from just one or two drinks.