How Does Alcohol Affect Your Nutrition?

The Research Is Conflicting

Friends toasting with beer in a restaurant

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Does alcohol consumption help drinkers lose weight, or does it promote weight gain? Is a little alcohol with a meal good for you or is it dangerous? There seems to be conflicting data available about the nutritional effects of alcohol.

Of course, the question of drinking a small amount of alcohol along with a meal is not an option for people with an alcohol use disorder. Alcoholics do not stop at just one or two drinks. One or two are never "enough."

But for those who can drink moderately some clinical research indicates that replacing dietary carbohydrates with alcohol causes body weight loss, and adding a moderate amount of alcohol to an adequate diet causes little weight gain.

Such studies indicate that light to moderate drinkers weigh the same or less than those who abstain. But this seems to be contradicted by other research of those who have a few drinks along with meals.

Drinking Alcohol Promotes Overeating

However, individuals tend to overeat when they sit down to a high-fat meal and wash it down with alcoholic drinks, according to research results from two studies published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 

"The energy content of alcohol represents extra calories," said Dr. Angelo Tremblay, Ph.D., Professor of Nutrition and Physiology, Laval University, Quebec, Canada, "thus increasing total daily intake. This effect seems to add to the overfeeding associated with a high-fat diet, increasing the chances of weight gain."

The use of alcohol by participants in the study encouraged the consumption of protein, but not carbohydrates, suggesting that alcohol may modify preference for some types of nutrients. Daily food intake was significantly greater for the heavier drinkers.

Alcohol Is Easily Abused

Unfortunately, alcoholic beverages are "foods" with great potential for abuse. They trigger cravings and compulsive eating and drinking as other foods do, but the health and social consequences are more drastic. The compulsive use and abuse of alcoholic beverages can be devastating to individuals and society.

There are many adverse health effects associated with heavy drinking or binge drinking. The damage is done by the toxic effects of alcohol, by nutrient deficiencies and by other adverse effects of the wrong food such as food allergy.

Heavy drinkers tend to "starve"—they eat little or have limited, inferior food choices. They have used up their nutrient stores and are often drawing on their own tissues for fuel. Electrolyte depletion and vitamin deficiency are just two of the negative health effects.

Alcohol Consumption Promotes Malnutrition

When large amounts of alcohol are consumed, the body senses that its caloric needs have been met. This produces a decreased demand for other foods. Alcohol contains about 9,000 calories (9 Kcal) per gram. However, these calories do not provide any of the carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins or minerals needed to maintain body functions.

Alcohol's toxic effect on the gastrointestinal tract also promotes poor nutrition. Alcohol irritates the gut wall, leading to inflammation and ulceration. This can result in poor absorption of nutrients and a maldigestive gastrointestinal tract.

Alcohol contributes to malnutrition by replacing foods needed for essential nutrients and by interfering with absorption, storage or metabolism of the essential nutrients. There are many other health dangers associated with chronic or long-term drinking.

Other Health Issues Associated With Alcohol

High blood triglycerides, along with other risk factors, may increase the chance of developing heart disease. For those who drink alcohol, the liver produces more triglycerides that circulate in the blood.

Alcohol can damage the brain in many ways. The most serious effect is Korsakoff's syndrome, characterized in part by an inability to remember recent events or to learn new information. For those who have diabetes, alcohol increases the risk of low blood sugar/hypoglycemic reactions.

Studies also have noted an association between alcohol consumption and an increased risk of breast cancer. The mechanism of this effect is not yet known, but the association may be due to carcinogenic actions of alcohol or its metabolites to alcohol-induced changes in levels of hormones, such as estrogens, or to some other process.

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