Alcohol is a tonic and a poison. How often and how much you drink determines which it is. For example, moderate drinking (one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men) seems to be good for your cardiovascular system, depending on your age and health. On the contrary, heavy drinking has been associated with damaging your heart and your liver, elevating your cholesterol and triglycerides, and increasing your risk for certain cancers (brain, mouth, esophagus, and breast). Excessive drinking also leads to malnutrition by disrupting the body’s ability for proper digestion, storage, utilization, and excretion of nutrients.
Alcohol’s effects on nutrients
Alcohol hinders the breakdown of nutrients into usable molecules by reducing the secretion of digestive enzymes from the pancreas. Cells lining the stomach walls are damaged, which weakens your immune system, impairs nutrient absorption, and restricts transportation of certain nutrients into the blood. Additionally, nutritional deficiencies may lead to further absorption problems. For example, a deficiency in folate impairs the absorption of water, glucose, sodium, and additional folate.
The good news is that you don’t need alcohol to survive because it is not essential to your diet. Alcohol is generally used in social settings, to relax, or as a maladaptive coping mechanism. The essential nutrients your body requires come from macro-and micronutrients such as protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, and minerals, respectively. Without these nutrients, you would be severely deficient and more prone to disease. Alcohol primarily consists of water, ethanol, and different levels of sugar. It is more calorically dense (7 calories per gram) in comparison to protein or carbs (4 calories per gram). These are considered “empty calories” because they do not provide nutritional value and can lead to weight gain.
Alcohol’s effects on your body
Does this mean you are guaranteed to gain weight? No. But it doesn’t mean it has no impact on your weight or metabolism. Weight gain comes down to consuming more calories than your body needs. Consuming alcohol will increase your total daily calories, which can take you above the level your body needs. Heavy drinking and binge drinking appears to have the greatest association with weight gain versus moderate drinking.
Consuming alcohol also slows down your metabolism. Because alcohol produces energy, your body tries to get rid of these substances and use them for energy first. Simply put, metabolizing alcohol is your body’s priority to burn for fuel and stops metabolizing calories from food. As a result, your body will store excess glucose from carbohydrates and lipids from fats as excess body fat, leading to weight gain.
The reality of drinking alcohol and its impact on your health affects everyone differently. If you or someone you know would like expert guidance on reducing alcohol intake, contact one of our dietitians to help improve your health and wellness goals. Never fear – we’re not the food police! We understand that alcohol may show up on occasion, and utilizing our customizable meal plan option could provide a better understanding of how to include an occasional drink or two in your lifestyle without taking you off the beaten path.