Let’s face it, a lot of us enjoy some alcohol with dinner, on special occasions, or on a fun night out. However, the controversy of whether or not to consume alcohol continues. From a weight management perspective, alcohol is calorically dense and can increase our weight (which can lead to health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure). From a health perspective, there is research that proves certain health benefits from moderate consumption, however, heavy consumption of alcohol is deleterious to our bodies.
What is alcohol?
The scientific name for the alcohol we drink is ethanol, which is produced by a process called fermentation. It is biochemically different from other carbohydrates because of an extra oxygen and hydrogen atom (OH) and it contains 7 calories per gram (other carbohydrates found in foods like fruits or pasta have 4 calories per gram). Alcohol can be found in beer, wine, spirits, like vodka and whiskey.
A can of beer contains about 150 calories and 12 grams of carbohydrate. It is made from barley and hops which contain flavonoids and it is also a good source of B-vitamins and other antioxidants. Because of its rich B-vitamin content, research has suggested that beer can help reduce blood pressure and the risk of development of heart disease. There is also research from Tufts University which may also show that beer helps to protect against the development of osteoporosis.
A half a glass of wine has about 120 – 140 calories and 2-7 grams of carbohydrate. It contains antioxidants and a polyphenol called resveratol. A lot of research has suggested that because of these ingredients, a serving of red wine on a daily basis may help to reduce heart disease by increasing HDL (“good cholesterol”), however, more recent research suggests that small amounts of alcohol, whether wine, beer, or spirits, help to protect the heart. The resveratol found in red wine are also found in red grapes, peanuts, blueberries, and cranberries.
Spirits include drinks like vodka, gin, rum, brandy, and whiskey. 1.5 ounces (a shot) of an 80-proof spirit contains about 100 calories. Again, studies suggest that moderate consumption of all alcohol can have health benefits. Moderate consumption is defined as 1 serving per day for women and 2 serving per day for men. (1 serving = 1 can of beer, ½ glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces (a shot) of a spirit.)
In general, a moderate consumption of alcohol can help to increase HDL, decrease the formation of blood clots, and helps to prevent artery damage. However, there is still a lot of research that needs to be done in order to determine if alcohol is in fact beneficial to our health and what type is healthier to consume.
It must be emphasized that just because there is some research to suggest certain health benefits of alcohol consumption, it does not give us the green light to drink as much as we want, whenever we want. There is also research that links alcohol consumption to increased risk of breast cancer in women. So, because of this gray area with alcohol, the Harvard School of Public Health suggests following the guidelines outlined below:
“If you are thin, physically active, don't smoke, eat a healthy diet, and have no family history of heart disease, drinking alcohol won't add much to decreasing your risk of cardiovascular disease.
If you don't drink, there's no need to start. You can get similar benefits with exercise (beginning to exercise if you don't already or boosting the intensity and duration of your activity) or healthier eating.
If you are a man with no history of alcoholism who is at moderate to high risk for heart disease, a daily alcoholic drink could reduce that risk. Moderate drinking might be especially beneficial if you have low HDL that just won't budge upward with diet and exercise.
If you are a woman with no history of alcoholism who is at moderate to high risk for heart disease, the possible benefits of a daily drink must be balanced against the small increase in risk of breast cancer.
If you already drink alcohol or plan to begin, keep it moderate—no more than two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women. And make sure you get plenty of folate, at least 600 micrograms a day.”
As with anything, alcohol should not be abused. If you don’t drink, you don’t have to start in order to receive health benefits that you can also get through proper eating and exercise. If you do drink, do so in moderation and always within the context of a healthy diet.