With the Christmas and New Year period on the horizon, many of us may be looking forward to more parties, family gatherings and work functions. It’s been a difficult year for many, and now it’s time for us to unwind and celebrate the festive season.
During this time, it’s easy for our good habits to take a back seat. With a busy social calendar ahead, now is a great opportunity to reflect on our healthy habits, especially our approach to drinking.
What exactly is alcohol?
Alcohol is an energy source. In drinks, we call it ‘ethanol’. Ethanol is produced by fermenting the sugars in starch or sugar-based crops such as grains, fruits and vegetables. This is how we get beer from barley, wine from grapes and vodka from potatoes. When we compare this energy source to our three major nutrients for energy – carbohydrates, proteins and fats – alcohol is a poor source of energy and very lacking in nutrients.
How does my body process alcohol?
Alcohol affects the body straight away and has the capacity to affect everyone. We may start to feel more relaxed and confident as our inhibitions reduce, our speech can slur, and we may have difficulty walking.
What’s even more interesting is the unique metabolic pathway of alcohol. Unlike other macronutrients, alcohol is absorbed directly into the blood stream by diffusion. As a result, alcohol gets priority digestion over the other macronutrients. The outcome of this process is that alcohol is either used for energy or stored as fat. Alcohol also provides seven calories per gram (almost twice the amount of energy we get from one gram of carbohydrate). In a nutshell – alcohol is energy dense, nutrient poor and prevents the body from properly absorbing, digesting and using other nutrients.
Does alcohol affect my heart?
Drinking too much alcohol can raise the levels of some fats in the blood (triglycerides), reduce our HDL “good” cholesterol and increase our blood pressure. As alcohol is very energy dense, we’re likely to increase our caloric intake. Doing this continuously may lead to weight gain, which is well known to increase blood pressure and heighten our risk of developing type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
You may have heard that drinking red wine is good for your heart. This relates to what is known as the “French Paradox”. Observational research in the 1980s found that a high percentage of French people had very low rates of coronary heart disease despite having a diet that included lots of saturated fat. This research argued that having low to moderate amounts of red wine may even be protective against heart disease. However, there is also vast evidence to support that consuming alcohol in high amounts leads to poor health outcomes. The issue here is that we’re often unaware of what a moderate amount of alcohol is, or what exceeds this amount.
Two or more drinks on any one occasion is considered exceeding a moderate intake of alcohol. By consuming two cans of full-strength beer or two average-sized glasses of red wine, we’re already clocking up approximately three standard drinks.
How much alcohol is ok?
It’s recommended that healthy men and women drink no more than 14 units a week on a regular basis, spreading these units evenly over three or more days.1
One drink doesn’t necessarily equal one unit, as alcoholic drinks vary in strength and size. One unit is 10ml of pure alcohol. This is equivalent to six pints of average strength beer or six 175ml glasses of average strength wine.
What about lower carb beer?
Low carb beers are not low alcohol. They have a lower number of calories than full strength beers, but if we were to compare a soft drink or glass of juice to alcohol, alcohol is actually quite low in carbohydrates.
Rather than worrying about the carbohydrate content of beer, think of your alcohol intake from a health perspective – which, put simply, means it's always best to have less.
Festive drinking habits to practice
- Choose one alcoholic beverage, then one glass of water and repeat this process.
- Rather than constantly topping up your drink, completely finish it before considering a refill. This will help you keep track of your intake.
- Where possible, select a light beer or a low alcohol wine such as a wine spritzer.
- Keep a jug of water in sight, whether that be on the kitchen bench, dining table or outside near the BBQ. Wherever you are, make water the easy drink of choice.
If you want to avoid alcohol but still feel festive, water can be made more interesting by adding herbs, spices, vegetable slices or fruit pieces. You can choose plain, soda or mineral water to be the base of your mocktail. Why not try the following combinations?
- Fresh mint with cucumber and ice cubes
- Frozen berries with fresh mint and limes wedges
- Apple slices with cinnamon spice and ice
- Fresh ginger with frozen raspberries and pomegranate
- UK Chief Medical Officers’ Low Risk Drinking Guidelines
About the author
The Healthy Eating Hub
This article was written by an Accredited Practicing Dietitian from The Healthy Eating Hub. The Healthy Eating Hub is a team of university-qualified nutritionists and dietitians who are passionate about helping people develop long term healthy eating habits through offering evidence-based and practical nutrition advice that people can put into practice straight away.