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To drink or or not to drink alcohol in social settings seems to be a difficult decision: you want the intoxication, but not the calories or the after-effects!

However, in moderation, a drink may not be the worst thing in the world. Here’s why.

 

Alcohol and Our Body

What causes intoxication and loss of inhibition with alcohol is the ethanol present in alcoholic drinks. It’s also the second highest in energy (after fat), providing about 7 calories per gram.

While different types of alcohols have different amounts of ethanol, and so different calories, the stronger drinks are diluted down and consumed less. So, along with the calories from the mixer, it’s the percentage of ethanol/alcohol and its quantity that makes all the difference to our health.1

One alcohol unit is measured as 10 ml or 8 g of pure ethanol. The daily limit for consumption is about 2-3 units for women and 3-4 units for men.

 

   Alcohol Type    2-3 Units Alcohol Amount  Calorie Estimate
  Wine (13% alcohol)  1 medium glass (175 ml) 160
  Beer (5% alcohol)  1 to 1.5 330 ml bottles  140
  Spirits (40% alcohol)  Double (2 x 25 ml shots)  120
  Sugary beverage mixer  1 can (330 ml)  140

Alcohol abuse can have serious consequences on our body; but moderate amounts actually have considerable health benefits associated with it, including increasing good cholesterol and reducing blood clotting. Let’s take a look at some specific examples. 

 

Wine

You may have heard that a glass of red wine is good for our health – there is some indisputable truth to that statement.

Wine has a compound called ‘resveratrol’, which can reduce blood pressure and blood clots. Its antioxidant properties fight the signs of ageing and inflammation, thereby protecting us from many lifestyle diseases of today. It’s also believed to make cells more stress-resistant and increase our exercise endurance levels.

Resveratrol is found in the skin and seed of grapes, which is why white wine, made mostly from the flesh of grapes, contains very small amounts of resveratrol, compared to red wine which is made from both.

Don’t dismiss the white wine yet, though; both it and red wine have flavonoids, which are natural pigments (phytonutrients) that have powerful antioxidants.2

And there’s more: a study showed that the phytonutrients from red wine, with or without alcohol, may even help the good bacteria in our gut!3

 

Beer

Beer is made primarily from malt, which is a mush of ground, sprouted cereal grains (usually barley). A plant flower called hops is added as a flavouring and stabilising agent, giving beer its unique aroma and refreshing bitterness.

Owing to these ingredients, beer has amino acids and maybe even some B vitamins and magnesium. It also has natural pigments called phytonutrients from these plants, which have been known to confer health benefits in humans.4

Xanthohumol and ferulic acid, two of these phytonutrients, have received the most attention in recent years for their antioxidant properties. One study suggested that these antioxidants may be more easily absorbed by our body than those found in wine.5

Another compound in beer, known as Methylsulfonylmethane or MSM, is used by the body to grow bone, hair and nails. The quantity is too little for beer to be the only source for it, but it definitely is a contributor.

Beer contains almost as many calories as sugary soft drinks, ounce for ounce. It generally has only 4-5% alcohol in it, but the carbs from the grains accounts for the rest of the calories.

Studies have debunked the misconception that beer drinkers are more obese than either non-drinkers or drinkers of wine or spirits.1, 6 Since the alcohol content is low, people may drink more to feel intoxicated, which may then rack up the calorie count.

 

Healthiest Spirits

I. For avoiding hangovers:

The severity of a hangover is directly related to the amount of alcohol that was consumed, so the only way to avoid one is to drink in moderation.

However, your drink of choice can also affect the severity of a hangover.

Here’s why –

When alcohol is produced, small amounts of  toxic substances called congeners get formed along with the ethanol (methanol, isopentanol and acetone, for example). These are associated with hangover symptoms.

The more the alcohol is distilled, the more these substances are filtered out, which makes distilled alcohol better – and, quite often, more expensive.

Whiskey, cognac, and tequila are higher in congeners than colourless drinks like vodka, gin and rum. Bourbon whiskey is exceptionally high in congeners.7

 

II. For health benefits:

Other than beer and wine, spirits may also offer some health benefits.

1] Whiskey: The quality of whiskey is known to improve remarkably by its storage over many years. During the ‘maturing’ process, phytonutrients called polyphenols seep into the whiskey from the barrel. These have antioxidant properties and some fall under the class called flavonoids, which have multiple health benefits.8

2] Gin: The main ingredient of gin is Juniper berries, which is known to combat bacterial infections, and help ease bad coughs and lung congestion.9 It may also contain extracts of coriander, sage, cassia, nutmeg, rosemary, caraway and angelica root, which have health benefits of their own.

3] Vodka: This is perhaps the most effective alcoholic drink for stress reduction and to induce sleep, only when consumed in moderation of course. It is also associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and type-2 diabetes, reduced blood pressure, and is good for the heart, although this might apply to moderate alcohol consumption in general.10-13

4] Rum: This timeless favourite seems to provide a soothing and warming effect to those afflicted with the common cold.

 

III. For low-calorie diets:

Ideally, alcohol should be avoided while trying to lose weight or following a low-carb diet. However, an occasional drink never hurt anyone. With no fat at all, vodka gives the least energy.  A 30 ml vodka shot (40% ethanol) has only 64 calories.

 

Additional Tips

1] Replace sugary and energy drinks with soda or tonic water

This can help you cut down almost 70 to 150 calories per drink. Interestingly, tonic water has a substance called quinine, which in higher amounts is used to avoid malaria.

2] Drink loads of water

Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes you lose water. This can put you at a risk of getting dehydrated. Drinking plenty of water can help reduce some of the main symptoms of hangovers, including thirst and headache. A good rule is to drink a glass of water between drinks, and to have water before going to sleep and when you wake up.

3] Make sure you get plenty of sleep

Excess alcohol is known to impair sleep quality. So drinking on a weeknight until late may simply be a bad idea.

Heavy drinking is associated with a number of negative health and social consequences. Drinking in moderation and following these simple tips can help you enjoy your drink without too much guilt the next morning!

 

References:

1.         Wannamethee SG, Shaper AG. Am J Clin Nutr 2003, 77(5): 1312-1317.

2.         German JB, Walzem RL. Annu Rev Nutr 2000, 20: 561-593.

3.         Boto-Ordonez M, et al. Food Funct 2014, 5(8): 1932-1938.

4.         Kondo K. BioFactors 2004, 22(1-4): 303-310.

5.         Arranz S, et al. Nutrients 2012, 4(7): 759-781.

6.         Bobak M, et al. Eur J Clin Nutr 0000, 57(10): 1250-1253.

7.         Rohsenow DJ, Howland J. Curr Drug Abuse Rev 2010, 3(2): 76-79.

8.         Fujieda M, et al. J Agric Food Chem 2008, 56(16): 7305-7310.

9.         Filipowicz N, et al. Phytotherapy Research 2003, 17(3): 227-231.

10.       Lassaletta AD, et al. J Surg Res 2012, 178(2): 586-592.

11.       Koppes LL, et al. Diabetes Care 2005, 28(3): 719-725.

12.       Beilin LJ, Puddey IB. Hypertension 2006, 47(6): 1035-1038.

13.       Renaud SC, Ruf JC. Clin Chim Acta 1996, 246(1-2): 77-89.

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