Alcohol and Nutrition
Author: Betty Kovacs, MS, RD
What is alcohol?
Alcohol is a part of many social occasions, from family dinners to parties, to sporting events and nightcaps. The problems associated with alcoholism are well known, but what about the impact of social drinking or a moderate intake of alcohol? Does alcohol belong in our diet, or does the risk that it presents outweigh any benefits that may be derived from consuming it?
Good nutrition can help to improve your health and prevent diseases. The essential nutrients that your body needs are carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. The term "essential" means that if you remove one of these nutrients from your diet there will be a deficiency that causes health problems. Alcohol would not fall under the category of essential nutrients because there is no problem or disease state if you do not consume it. However, some argue that there are added health benefits from consuming alcohol and argue that it should be added to our diets for that reason.
The key to determining whether you need alcohol is to understand what alcohol is and how it is processed in your body. Calories provide energy for our bodies to function. We get calories from carbohydrates, protein, fat, and alcohol. For each gram, you get a set number of calories.
The vitamin, mineral, and water content add to the nutritional value for each of these nutrients but do not provide any calories. The key to a healthy diet is to spend your calories on foods that provide a variety of vitamins and minerals without a lot of calories. Alcohol can do the exact opposite of this. It doesn't provide a lot of vitamins and minerals and you can easily get an entire meal's worth of calories from a few cocktails! Alcohol interferes with how your body processes and stores nutrients so the healthy foods that you do eat don't get to do their job.
Many people do not realize that alcohol can be classified as a drug. Under this category, it is the most widely used drug in the world. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in the United States, 17.6 million people -- about one in every 12 adults -- abuse alcohol or are alcohol dependent. The majority of the population consumes alcohol moderately or occasionally, but that does not mean that it's not a problem. You do not need to be an alcoholic for alcohol to interfere with your health and life. The potential to become addicted to alcohol is a serious problem that can affect anyone. Alcohol is not an essential nutrient in your diet and limits need to be followed on how much and how often it is consumed.
How is alcohol made?
Alcohol, also known as ethanol, is made through a process called fermentation. During fermentation, yeast breaks sugar down into ethanol and carbon dioxide. This process is done without any air present, and once complete, the carbon dioxide gas bubbles out into the air, leaving ethanol and water behind. Distilled spirits, such as vodka, rum, gin, and whiskey, are fermented and then distilled to separate the ethanol from the water.
Various sources of sugar are used in these processes, resulting in different forms of alcohol. The sugar from crushed grapes is used to make wine; malted barley is used to make beer; sugar cane or molasses makes rum; grain, potatoes, beets, molasses, and a variety of other plants are used to make vodka.
The technique used to make the beverage will determine the alcohol content. You will see the percentage of alcohol per volume listed on the bottle, as well as the proof of the drink. The proof of a beverage is twice the alcohol content, so a drink with 12% alcohol per volume is 24 proof. Generally, a 12-ounce glass of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, and a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor all contain a ½ ounce of pure alcohol and are considered one drink.