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Alcohol and nutrition

Alcohol, also known as ethanol, is the intoxicating component of wine, beer and spirits. It has been used by various cultures for some 10,000 years and is one of the most popular recreational drugs, often used to promote social bonding and as part of celebrations and festivities.

Some studies have suggested moderate drinking may have some health benefits, but in 2016 the UK's chief medical officers said benefits for heart health of drinking alcohol were less than previously thought. They commented that the only group likely to experience heart benefits were women over the age of 55, especially those drinking 5 units a week or less.

In excess alcohol is a poison and higher intakes can be dangerous.

Although many people believe alcohol is a stimulant, because initially it may produce excitement or euphoria, it is ultimately a depressant, meaning it inhibits brain cells and slows down vital body functions including heart rate, breathing and brain function. If a person consumes more alcohol than the body can immediately metabolise, it can result in:

  • Slurred speech
  • Excitement or euphoria
  • Confusion or loss of coordination
  • Disturbed perceptions or judgement
  • Slowed reaction times

Acute alcohol overdose can result in much more severe effects:

In the longer term excessive alcohol intake has many harmful effects on the body that may include liver and heart damage, brain shrinkage, diabetes, gastric ulcers, impaired immunity, and a higher risk of certain cancers.

Alcohol and diet

So, given the dangers of over consumption, does alcohol have a place in a healthy diet at all? Some studies suggest there may be health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption, including improving blood cholesterol balance and insulin sensitivity, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and some types of stroke, and protecting against bone loss and dementia in older people. Against this must be balanced the health dangers of excess consumption and the consequences of hazards such as impaired judgement, alcoholism and injury or even death as a result of accidents.

Alcohol is not an essential nutrient and long-term excess consumption interferes with the body’s nutritional balance, partly because alcohol is taken in place of foods and partly because alcohol interferes with the way the body uses and stores nutrients from healthy foods.

A healthy diet should comprise mainly foods that provide essential nutrients along with vitamins and minerals, but without excess calories. Alcohol provides few nutrients, no vitamins or minerals, and is high in calories. A couple of cocktails can contain the calorie equivalent of an entire meal, and they are largely ‘empty calories’, of no nutritional value.

Although many people consider themselves moderate drinkers, you do not have to be an alcoholic for alcohol to interfere with your life and your health. It is easy to slip from moderate drinking into an increasing dependence on alcohol and as it is clearly not an essential nutrient in our diet, it should be used with care with clear limits on consumption.

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