One of the most frequently asked nutrition questions is about alcohol. How much? How often? What type should you drink to achieve a balance between the social aspects of drinking without any detrimental effects on your health? As is the case with many areas of nutrition, there are no hard and fast answers to these questions - every person is different, particularly in relation to health risk factors that play a key role in determining the recommendations on alcohol consumption for individuals.
From a physiological perspective, alcohol, the fourth energy supplying nutrient contains 27 kilojoules per gram (almost as much as fat which contains 37 kilojoules per gram) and is considered a toxin by the liver. For this reason, once alcohol is consumed the liver sets to work to eliminate it from the body as quickly as possible. Public health recommendations suggest adults aim for at least two alcohol free days a week, and a maximum of two standard drinks on days after that.
There has been much press about the health benefits of drinking alcohol regularly, and while there is some evidence to show that drinking a small amount of alcohol regularly can help to increase the amount of good cholesterol in the bloodstream. It is important to note that this finding is based on just one or two standard drinks a night; not drinking binges or alcohol consumed with high kilojoule mixers added.
The high kilojoule load of alcohol, particularly when it is mixed with juices, colas and energy drinks means that regular and high intakes of alcohol can easily result in weight gain. While a small glass of wine contains the same amount of kilojoules as a row of chocolate, the jumbo sized glasses that wine is frequently served in can contain three times this amount and it is not uncommon for a single female to polish off an entire bottle of wine by herself in a single setting. For most people, one or two standard drinks a night will not cause weight gain per say but drinking this much alcohol regularly does mean that the foods we commonly enjoy with a glass of wine or over a beer such as cheese, dips, potato chips and crackers are less likely to be used for energy as the body is too busy digesting the alcohol.
Low carbohydrate and reduced alcohol varieties of mixed drinks and beer can be slightly better options, containing fewer kilojoules than regular varieties of beer and wine but naturally such a benefit is quickly lost when three or four times the recommended number of drinks is consumed.
While drinking can be a part of social culture in Australia, finding a balance between health; weight control and socializing may be as simple as limiting drinking occasions to the weekends, as regular, nightly drinking quickly becomes a habit – a habit that can be extremely challenging to break. For the same reason, attempts at weight loss are best supported when an alcohol free period is followed, for at least a couple of weeks. And finally, if there is nothing you enjoy more than unwinding with a glass of red at the end of the day, as long as you choose small glasses, there does not seem to be any pressing reason to stop, nutritionally or otherwise.
Kilojoules in commonly consumed alcoholic drinks – remember we need 6000-8000kJ on average a day
Small glass of wine: 375 kJ
Small glass champagne: 355kJ
Glass low alcohol wine: 320kJ
Large (typical glass of wine): 650kJ
2 Crown Lagers: 1200kJ
Toohey’s Extra Dry: 600kJ
Low carbohydrate beer: 450kJ
Bourbon & Coke: 500kJ
Bourbon & Diet Coke: 290kJ