In this day and age alcohol is a means of helping adults relax at the end of the day, enhancing the flavor of food, making social experiences more enjoyable and helping people loosen up and have fun. For those of us who work hard at our health and fitness (but who also like to have fun) it may be challenging to do both at the same time and still get results. Without the right information it can be hard to get the results you are looking to achieve. Many of us have questions like:
- How much alcohol is recommended for consumption?
- How does alcohol promote improved health?
- How can drinking too much alcohol effect my overall fitness?
Nutritional Value of Alcohol
Much of the negative press about alcohol comes from the fact that it carries a significant amount of calories but little nutritional value. The nutritional value of food simply means the quantity, range and quality energy (calories), vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that are found in food. The caloric value is high, it has no vitamins or minerals and contains little or no fat, protein or sodium.
Examples of caloric content for standard size alcoholic beverages include:
- 12 fl. oz. beer (regular) – 150 calories
- 12 fl. oz. beer (stout or ale) – 280 calories
- 5 fl. oz. glass of wine (red or white) – 100 calories
- 1.5 fl. oz. shot of 80-proof distilled spirits (e.g. vodka, gin, whisky) – 100 calories
Keep in mind, these examples don’t include drinks that come in larger glasses or have added sugar, sodas or juice mixed in. These drinks add considerably more calories to the equation, which can deter any weight loss goal. A recent study looking at the diets of 1864 current drinkers (1126 men and 738 women), showed that both men and women had poorer diets on drinking days versus non-drinking days and both groups consumed more calories (click here for more information). So, a person who drinks is more likely to consume more calories from the alcoholic beverage and possibly consume more food as well.
Health Benefits of Moderate Alcohol Use
Despite popular belief among fitness enthusiasts (who may be concerned with calorie consumption), moderate drinking has been associated with better health and greater longevity than not drinking any alcohol at all. In fact, the world’s longest living man, Shigechiyo Izumi of Japan, who lived for 120 years and 237 days, enjoyed Shochu (a beverage distilled from barley) on a regular basis.
Red wine is well known for its heart healthy benefits. It contains antioxidants (called polyphenols) that help lower bad cholesterol, keeping blood vessels flexible and reducing the risk of unwanted clotting.
According to several research studies, alcohol consumption may provide some of the following health benefits:
- Reducing the risk of developing heart disease
- Reducing the risk of dying of a heart attack
- Possibly reducing the risk of stroke
- Lowering the risk of gallstones
- Possibly reducing the risk of diabetes
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that if you choose to drink alcohol, you should do so only in moderation (up to one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men).
Excessive Alcohol Consumption and the Body
When alcohol is consumed in moderation, it can have positive effects on ones health. Excessive (or heavy) drinking, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. Excessive drinking is outlined as more than 3 drinks on any day or 7 per week for women and more than 4 drinks on any day or 14 per week for men.
Excessive drinking can have many negative effects on the body and on physical performance. These effects include:
- Reduced blood flow to the muscles (causing weakness and deterioration).
- Reduced testosterone in the blood and increased conversion of testosterone to estrogen (causing increased fat depositing and fluid retention).
- Imbalances in the bloodstream that can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), fatty liver and hyperlipidemia (build-up of fats in the bloodstream).
- Reduced supply of oxygen to the brain, resulting in a “blackout” caused by a lack of oxygen supply to the brain (causing cell death in the brain).
- Increased risk of sleep disorders.
- Increased risk of nutrition deficiencies (due to damage to the stomach and/or intestines).
- Increased risk of weight gain.
Tips for Responsible Alcohol Consumption
Enjoying alcoholic beverages and having fun shouldn’t get in the way of your progress at the gym. Below are a few tips to consider when ordering a drink at the bar, a glass of wine at dinner or when mixing up fun drinks at home with your friends.
- Use the appropriate sized glass for your alcoholic beverage. This will help gauge the amount of alcohol you consume at one time (beer – 12 fl. oz.; wine – 5 fl. oz.; distilled spirits – 1.5 fl. oz.). Oversized martini glasses and beer mugs can account for two or more servings.
- When drinking wine, choose the red varieties. Wine, in general, is the most calorie-friendly choice but red wine has many other benefits (e.g. antioxidants and resveratrol).
- When drinking beer, choose regular or light. Lagers, ales and stouts can be nearly double the amount of calories of regular beer.
- Limit the number of cocktails mixed with sugar, juices and carbonated drinks. Examples of the high calorie cocktails include:
- Long Island Iced Tea – 780 calories
- Margarita – 740 calories
- White Russian – 425 calories
- Gin/Vodka Tonic – 200 calories
Food for Thought …
If you choose to drink, doing so in moderation can have significant health benefits for both body and mind. But beware … drinking alcohol does decrease your inhibitions and may make you eat and drink more without thinking about it. As you work hard towards achieving your health and fitness goals, one way to celebrate your hard work and successes can be a nice cold beer, glass of wine or refreshing cocktail!