How much is too much? The benefits, risks, and recommendations for drinking alcohol
Stopping for a happy hour cocktail after work with colleagues, drinking a cold beer at a baseball game, or sipping on a glass of wine during dinner are common habits of the American adult when it comes to consuming alcohol. In a recent survey, 52% of participants indicated they drank 1 to 8 beverages per week while only 34% said they did not drink weekly.
Men were more likely to drink than women and the age range of individuals most frequently sipping on an alcoholic beverage was between 35 to 54 years of age. With such a wide range of alcohol consumption considered the norm, understanding the pros and cons of drinking can help you decide how alcohol fits within your own lifestyle.
Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, but the effects of drinking extend beyond this organ to impact other functions of the body. In a healthy adult, a drink or two on an irregular basis may not result in noticeable health concerns. Excessive intake though, especially over time, can lead to liver damage along with undesired symptoms of swelling, abdominal bloating, nausea, vomiting, and jaundice (yellow coloration of the skin). Risks for developing other diseases also increase with alcohol use and include changes with the gastrointestinal tract and how well food can be absorbed, a decline in mental function, and a higher chance for cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Additionally, certain populations are highly encouraged to avoid alcohol because of the negative health consequences. This includes those that are underage, pregnant, have a history of alcoholism, or individuals with certain medications that are less effective when alcohol is consumed.
Nutrition status is also influenced by the amount of alcohol consumed. If you’re drinking too much, you may be replacing food and water with alcohol which can leave your body short on the many nutrients it needs. Niacin, thiamin, and other B vitamins as well as zinc, magnesium, and potassium may all be low and require replacement for your body to function normally. Excess alcohol can also add up in calories and contribute to weight gain in some individuals.
For most people, consuming alcohol does not provide a great deal of benefits. There is, however, limited research that suggests a light to moderate amount of alcohol may have certain protective effects in a healthy individual. This includes raising healthy cholesterol levels to protect against heart disease, improving how the body uses insulin to reduce diabetes risk, and preventing blood clots that may cause a stroke.
The highly popular Mediterranean diet encourages intake of red wine, but the amount is limited at 1 or 2 drinks per day. When considering the benefits of drinking, a healthy lifestyle should also be considered, as many of the ”pros” of alcohol can also come from a balanced diet and regular physical activity.
What is a portion size?
Recognizing different portion sizes of alcoholic beverages can help you in determining your limits. The following portions should be considered if you choose to drink:
- Beer (5% alcohol): 12 fluid ounces
- Wine (12% alcohol): 5 fluid ounces
- Malt Liquor (~7% alcohol): 8 fluid ounces
- Distilled Spirits: Gin, rum, vodka, whiskey (40%/80 proof): 1.5 fluid ounces
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 to 2025 offer recommendations for alcohol intake for the adult who is of legal age to drink. While drinking alcohol is not encouraged, even for the healthy adult, less is better. For those who like to incorporate alcohol here and there or for that special occasion, moderation is key. For men, no more than two alcoholic drinks in one day are suggested while the recommendations for women are slightly lower at one alcoholic beverage per day.
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!
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Executive Summary. Available at: https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/DGA_2020-2025_ExecutiveSummary_English.pdf. Accessed June 7, 2022.
Gallup: U.S. Alcohol Consumption on Low End of Recent Readings. Available at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/353858/alcohol-consumption-low-end-recent-readings.aspx. Accessed June 6, 2022.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: The Nutrition Source. Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits. Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/drinks-to-consume-in-moderation/alcohol-full-story/. Accessed June 7, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Alcohol use: Weighing risks and benefits. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/alcohol/art-20044551. Accessed June 7, 2022.
Nutrition Care Manual. Alcoholism. Available at: www.nutritioncaremanual.org. Accessed June 6, 2022.
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