Alcohol and nutrition: What’s the health impact?
Alcohol consumption is often overlooked by most as an area where small changes can make a big impact on our overall wellness and nutritional health. It may be because of how socially acceptable drinking has become, or because society glamorizes it as a way to unwind.
It’s easy to adopt the mentality, “If you’re not drinking alcohol, then how are you celebrating, commiserating with others, relaxing on the weekend, or escaping life’s problems?” We know better than to think that alcohol is a necessity for our daily lives, but it is not uncommon for people to drink more than they would if they knew the impact of alcohol on nutritional health.
Alcohol and nutrition
Alcohol is a chemical substance made by the process of fermentation that uses sugars and yeast. There are different types of alcohol. The one used in alcoholic drinks is called ethyl alcohol or ethanol. It is devoid of protein, minerals and vitamins and actually can inhibit the absorption of vital nutrients.
Alcohol contains seven calories per gram, compared to four calories per gram of protein and carbohydrate and nine calories per gram for fat. The calories that come from alcohol are classified as “empty calories” meaning they provide no nutritional value. Additionally, alcohol itself provides no nutritional benefit to the body.
Drinking alcohol in any quantity can damage your health and negatively impact your body’s nutritional status. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is ongoing evidence to support that the more alcohol one consumes, the higher their risk of death due to various causes. Alcohol is known to increase one’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease, liver disease, digestive disorders as well as cancer, especially mouth/throat, esophagus, colon/rectal, liver and breast in women.
Is there such a thing as drinking responsibly?
A standard drink in the United States is defined as 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This generally equates to:
- 12-ounce beer (at 5% alcohol)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (containing 7% alcohol)
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1 1/2 ounces of distilled liquor
In their Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol, the CDC defines moderate use of alcohol as one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men. The guidelines note that there are people who should not drink at all, including pregnant women, people under the age of 21, those taking certain medications that adversely interact with or lose their effectiveness when mixed with alcohol, and people who are recovering from alcohol use disorder.
Complications and health-related issues
In addition to the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, liver disease, digestive issues and cancers, there are other short- and long-term effects of alcohol consumption to be aware of.
Decreased nutrient absorption
The major nutrients affected by alcohol consumption are thiamine (B1), B12, folic acid, and zinc. Alcohol inhibits the absorption of these vital nutrients by interfering with the body’s normal digestion process. When nutritive food and beverages are consumed, the nutrients from the digested foods are absorbed into the blood from the intestines and then processed by the liver. Alcohol damages the cells that line the stomach and the intestines preventing proper digestion from occurring.
Disruption of gut microbiome
Chronic alcohol use creates an imbalance of microflora in the gut, which promotes an abundance of harmful bacteria in the stomach. This disruption in healthy gut bacteria can cause immediate GI distress as early as the day after alcohol consumption. Typically, only mild symptoms are felt, including diarrhea, cramping, gas and bloating. However, symptoms can worsen over time with chronic alcohol use and may lead to more severe health effects such as loss of appetite, abdominal pain, pancreatitis, gastritis and stomach cancer.
Impaired immune function
Our immune systems are made up of two parts: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. The innate immune system is responsible for responding to viruses, unhealthy bacteria, and other microorganisms that cause diseases to occur.
The adaptive immune system is responsible for stopping illnesses from occurring a second time. It is considered the “memory” of immunity. Alcohol causes short- and long-term impairment of both the innate and adaptive immune systems. This is not just true for those who consume large amounts of alcohol but moderate use as well.
Educating yourself on the effects of alcohol and the impact it has on nutritional health is important and empowers the consumer to make informed choices when it comes to what you put in your body. Alcohol’s provision of empty calories, increased risk for several diseases, and its negative impact on the body’s immune response are just a few facts that may spark your interest to learn more about this topic.
If you have more questions about your diet, it’s always a great idea to speak with a registered dietitian. Registered dietitians are the only credentialed experts qualified to address your unique health questions. Click here to request a direct consultation with a dietitian today!
Alcohol and Cancer Risk. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/alcohol Accessed on 2/13/23
Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm Accessed on 2/13/23
How Alcohol Effects You. Available at https://studenthealth.ucsd.edu/resources/health-topics/alcohol-drugs/nutrition-endurance.html Accessed on 2/13/23
Understanding Alcohol and Our Immune System. Available at https://adf.org.au/insights/alcohol-immune-system/ Accessed on 2/15/23
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