Alcohol and Diet


Comments Off on Alcohol and Diet | Last Update: April 18, 2012

Alcohol Forms and Measurement

Alcohol is a generic term for ethanol, a particular type of alcohol produced by the fermentation of foods like barley, hops, potatoes, agave, and grapes. Other types of alcohol commonly available such as methanol (used in glass cleaners), isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), and ethylene glycol (automobile antifreeze solution) are highly poisonous even in small quantities when swallowed.

Standard American Drink Sizes

Some health experts recommend Americans drinking 1 to 2 drinks per day. This recommendation is based on a standard drink containing 14 grams of ethanol. It is equivalent to:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer with 5% alcohol content
  • 5 ounces of wine with 12% alcohol content
  • 1.5 ounces of hard liquor with 40% alcohol content (80 proof)

Click here for a table of Standard Drinks and alcohol content. 

Alcohol Absorption And Blood Alcohol Concentration

Approximately 20 percent of the ethanol in a drink is absorbed into the bloodstream directly from the stomach, and 80 percent from the small intestine.

The longer the alcohol remains in your stomach, the slower it is absorbed and the lower your peak blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

Drinking an alcoholic beverage with food slows the process of emptying the stomach contents which slows the absorption of alcohol and reduces your peak BAC.

When alcohol is taken with food, absorption generally is complete in 1 to 3 hours during which time your BAC will peak. If no further alcohol is consumed, “sobering up” follows peak BAC levels.

Alcohol Distribution in the Body

Ethanol is highly soluble in water and absorbed much less in fat. Alcohol distributes itself mostly in tissues rich in water (muscle) instead of tissue rich in fat.

Two people weighing the same can have bodies with different proportions of tissue containing water and fat.

For example, a tall, thin person and a short, stocky person both weigh 150 pounds. The short, stocky person has more fat and less water making up his body than the tall, thin person. If both people, in this example, consume the same amount of alcohol, the short, stocky person can have a higher BAC than the tall, thin person. The reason is because the alcohol he/she drank was distributed into a smaller “water space.”

Women’s bodies, on average, have more fat and less water than men’s bodies. Using the same logic, a woman may reach a higher BAC than a man of the same weight when both drink the same amount of alcohol under the came conditions like with or without food.

Metabolizing Alcohol

When you drink alcoholic beverages, some of the alcohol is converted to fat, some is burned as energy, and a small amount is excreted unchanged in your breath and urine. The liver metabolizes about 90% of the ethanol. About 5% is excreted into the urine, and the lungs excrete about 5% during exhalation (breathing out). Alcohol excretion by the lungs is the basis for breathalyzer testing.

The average person metabolizes about 1 standard drink (14 grams of ethanol) per hour. Heavy drinkers have more active livers and may be able to metabolize up to 3 drinks per hour.

When you have a drink, your body converts a small amount of the alcohol consumed into fat. The rest is converted by the liver into a substance called acetate. Acetate is released into the bloodstream and is used as your body’s primary source of fuel. Burning alcohol as fuel may seem like a good way to remove alcohol from your body, but your body is burning alcohol instead of body fat. Any unburned acetate is stored as fat.

People with liver disease metabolize less than 1 drink per hour. A chronic alcoholic’s liver can burn out and no longer metabolize alcohol, or anything else, efficiently. This is known as alcoholic cirrhosis. In alcoholic cirrhosis, the liver cells become badly scarred. This scarring has the effect of blocking blood flow through the liver, impeding exchange of metabolic chemicals into and out of the liver cells and damaging the cells ability to function.

Alcohol and Appetite

Many Americans begin a meal with an alcoholic beverage when dining out. One of the first questions a server asks is, “Can I get you something to drink?” What they hope is can they get you something alcoholic to drink. Alcoholic beverages have higher profit margins than most foods.

The combination of alcohol and a high-calorie meal is especially fattening because alcohol stimulates appetite. One study showed an aperitif (an alcoholic drink taken before a meal to increase the appetite) can increased calorie intake more than carbohydrate-based drinks like colas.

Health Benefits of Alcohol

It is not necessarily the alcohol in a beverage that is good for you. Scientists believe the antioxidants, called flavonoids, found in red wine reduces the risk of coronary heart disease in four ways:

  1. By reducing production of low density lipoprotein LDL cholesterol (also know as the “bad” cholesterol)
  2. By boosting high density lipoprotein HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol)
  3. By reducing blood clotting
  4. Having a glass of wine with a meal may favorably influence your lipid profiles following that meal

Recent research indicates moderate red wine consumption may be beneficial to more than just your heart. One study found the antioxidant resveratrol, which is prevalent in the skin of red grapes, may inhibit tumor development in some cancers. Another study indicated resveratrol aided in the formation of nerve cells, which experts believe may be helpful in the treatment of neurological diseases like Alzheimer and Parkinson’s.

Wine has been a part of Mediterranean diets for thousands of years, and is served daily with dinner in many households. But, it is important to weigh the benefits of drinking any alcoholic beverage against the risks. Alcohol is a potent drug. Before adding alcoholic beverages to your diet, discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor and always drink alcoholic beverages in moderation.

Risks of Drinking Alcohol

Alcohol affects every part of your body, and is especially harmful to your liver and unborn babies.  Some people have very low or zero tolerance to alcohol and are intoxicated and impaired after drinking only a few ounces of an alcoholic beverage.  Being impaired by alcohol can result in serious injury or death.  Forty percent of all traffic accidents are caused by drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

You must weight the possible health benefits derived form the moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages against the risks.  If your are prone to hangovers or feel ill the day after drinking alcoholic beverages you should seriously consider reducing or eliminating alcohol from your diet.  This reduces or eliminates a major cause of mental and physical impairment and a source of a significant number of calories in your diet.

One 12 ounce regular beer has 150 calories the same amount as a 12 ounce regular soft drink.  Drinking just one beer a day provides 54,750 calories per year.  If you do not burn those calories, you can gain up to 15 pounds of fat in one year!  For someone weighing 150 pounds, that is a 10 percent weight increase in one year.

Calories in Alcohol

Alcohol has 7 calories per gram, second only to fat at 9 calories per gram, and little or no nutritional value.  Unlike carbohydrates, protein and fat, alcohol is not an essential nutrient.  While some studies indicate there may be medicinal benefits drinking one or two glasses of wine or beer per day, many studies have documented the adverse effects and dangers of drinking alcohol.

A person needing 2,000 calories a day drinking two bottles of beer a day obtains 15 percent of their calories from alcohol.  That is a significant number of calories that should be partially or totally allocated to high quality carbohydrates and protein supplying fiber, amino acids, essential vitamins and minerals, and a wide variety of micronutrients.

Calories in Alcohol
Type Amount Calories
Beer – regular 12 fl-oz 150
Gin – Vodka (80 proof) 1.5 fl-oz 95
Dessert Wine 3.5 fl-oz 140
Table Wine 1/2 bottle (375 ml) 306