Have you been trying to give up sodas and other sugary beverages in an attempt to cut calories? While the focus has been on the need to cut back on sugar sweetened beverages to prevent obesity, we may have been overlooking another significant source of empty calories.
A recent study revealed that adults consume almost as many calories a day from alcohol as they do from sugary drinks. According to the study, the U.S. adult population consumes an average of 100 calories per day just from alcoholic beverages — an amount that could contribute to excess weight gain for many people. On any given day, 20 percent of men and 6 percent of women consume more than 300 calories from alcoholic beverages. That is roughly the amount in two beers or two to three glasses of wine.
Most people are aware there are calories in alcoholic beverages, but may not realize how those few extra daily calories add up and may be contributing to their gradual weight gain.
Part of the problem is that many people aren’t sure what constitutes a “drink.” A standard alcoholic drink is defined as any drink that contains 14 grams of pure alcohol. For regular beer, that’s a 12 ounce can, for wine 5 ounces, and for 80-proof spirits its 1.5 ounces.
Another part of the equation is what we mix with our cocktails. If you drink hard liquor, chances are you mix it with a sugary beverage or something else that has loads of calories that you may not account for.
But, it’s not just calories we need to be concerned with when we drink alcohol. Although it has been shown that moderate drinking is beneficial to the coronary system, chronic, heavy alcohol intake can cause tissue damage of organs and increase your risk of cancers, gouty arthritis, heart disease, kidney disease and depression. When the liver is repeatedly exposed to large amounts of alcohol, it becomes less and less able to handle it. The first sign might be a fatty liver, then scarring and development of fibrous tissue, which further interferes with the liver’s function. This can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, which is where the liver slowly deteriorates and malfunctions. Cirrhosis is the twelfth leading cause of death in the United States, killing about 27,000 people each year.
Following is an overview of how alcohol affects your body. In the first minute or so, the drink hits your stomach, especially if you are drinking on an empty stomach. About 20 percent of the alcohol is quickly absorbed directly to your bloodstream through the stomach walls. Once the alcohol is in your bloodstream, it shoots to your brain where it disrupts nerve cells in the hippocampus (memory), the cerebellum (movement) and the prefrontal cortex (mood). As a result, you feel relaxed, charming and uninhibited.
Page 2 of 2 - The alcohol in your stomach is reduced by about 20 percent, especially if you have eaten recently. About 10 percent of the alcohol you drink is expelled in your breath and urine. Your liver starts to work to break down the rest of the alcohol and puts a hold on its other key duties, such as processing calories. In the next 30 minutes, the liver converts the alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen, then further breaks it down to acetate.
Your liver can break down the equivalent of about one drink per hour. If your liver is overwhelmed by the amount of alcohol to process, the alcohol backs up in your bloodstream, circulating around until the liver can get to it. This causes blood vessels in the skin to expand, making you feel warmer and maybe a bit flushed. Alcohol is a potent diuretic, so don’t be surprised by frequent bathroom trips. If your drink is mixed with a sugary beverage, then you will probably experience an insulin spike, which may lead to the desire to eat salty, fatty foods that you normally would avoid. After 60 minutes, the alcohol is neutralized, transformed from acetate to carbon dioxide that you breathe out and water that you void. However, the calories have been stored as triglycerides that are tucked away in your cells, mostly around your abdomen.
What is the fine line between moderate, good-for-you alcohol and too much? For men, it is recommended that you do not exceed two drinks per day; for women just one a day is the limit. The most common pattern of excessive alcohol use is binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as more than five drinks in two hours for men, or more than four in two hours for women. This can cause increased stress on the heart and liver much like chronic excessive alcohol consumption does, especially if this is your usual weekend routine. Consider a glass of water between drinks to allow your liver time to do its job in breaking down the alcohol.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.