Alcohol and Nutrition

  • Author:
    Betty Kovacs Harbolic, MS, RD

    Betty is a Registered Dietitian who earned her B.S. degree in Food and Nutrition from Marymount College of Fordham University and her M.S. degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. She is the Co-Director and Director of nutrition for the New York Obesity Research Center Weight Loss Program.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Quick GuideAlcohol Abuse: 12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking

Alcohol Abuse: 12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking

Does alcohol cause nutritional deficiencies? (continued)

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is needed to help make DNA, to maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells, and for protein metabolism. Low levels can cause a loss of balance, numbness or tingling in the arms and legs, weakness, fatigue, constipation, confusion, depression, poor memory, soreness of the mouth or tongue, weight loss, and a type of anemia known as megaloblastic anemia. It is naturally found in animal products, including seafood, poultry, meat, eggs, and milk products. While plant foods don't generally contain it, most breakfast cereals are fortified with it.

Studies have shown that both moderate and heavy alcohol consumption will affect vitamin B12 levels. One study showed a 5% decrease in mean serum vitamin B12 concentrations when consumption of alcohol increased from 0 to 30 grams of alcohol/day.

The RDA for vitamin B12 is 2.4 mcg for men and women over 14 years old. A deficiency can be treated with injections when there are issues with being able to properly absorb this vitamin. Oral supplements have been shown to be effective with doses starting at 2,000 mcg daily, followed by a decrease to 1,000 mcg daily, then weekly and finally down to monthly. None of this is specifically for alcohol-induced deficiencies. The continued use of alcohol could alter the treatment needed. It's best to consult with your physician if you suspect a deficiency.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is one of the four fat-soluble vitamins. It is needed for vision (especially night vision), to regulate the immune system, for bone growth, for reproduction, and for cell division and differentiation. The top food sources in the U.S. diet are fish, fortified cereals, and dairy products. Provitamin A sources are broccoli, carrots, squash, and cantaloupe. The RDA for vitamin A is 900 mcg for men over 18 years old and 700 mcg for women over 18 years old.

Alcohol has been found to promote a deficiency of vitamin A and also enhance its toxicity when taken in excessive amounts. Supplementation is not an easy thing because alcohol makes it difficult to detect the deficiency accurately. Because vitamin A is toxic in high doses, taking too much in the form of supplements can be dangerous. If this seems complicated, it is. You may be able to supplement with beta carotene (this is a precursor to vitamin A), but not if you are smoker as this may increase lung cancer risk in smokers. Moderation when consuming alcohol is really the only way to safely address this.


Calcium is most well-known for its roles in bone tissue. It is the most abundant mineral in the body with several roles, including blood vessel and muscle contraction and expansion, for the secretion of hormones and enzymes, and for transmission of messages through the nervous system. The richest sources of calcium are milk, yogurt, and cheese. While it is found in kale, broccoli, and Chinese cabbage, the calcium in there is not absorbed as well as it is from dairy foods.

Alcohol consumption can cause a loss of calcium in the body by increasing urinary calcium excretion. Calcium deficiency can also lead to osteoporosis. Research shows that continued heavy alcohol use, especially during adolescence and young adult years, can dramatically affect bone health and increases the risk of osteoporosis later in life.

The RDA for men aged 19-70 is 1,000 mg and 1,200 mg for 71 and over; the RDA for women aged 19-50 is 1,000 mg and it's 1,200 mg for women aged 51 and over. Continued use of alcohol will continue to impair your calcium levels so supplementation may be beneficial.


Protein is made of amino acids. These amino acids help maintain the cell's structure, they transport substances in and out of cells, and act as enzymes. Alcohol can interfere with amino acids being absorbed in the small intestines. In the case of chronic liver failure, protein metabolism is greatly altered and numerous complications can occur (decreased albumin, ascites, and increased risk of hepatic encephalopathy). The pancreas is also affected by chronic alcohol exposure, and impaired secretion of pancreatic enzymes with resulting malabsorption of fat and proteins commences long before other signs of chronic pancreatic damage can be found.

Numerous other deficiencies will occur when alcohol replaces nutrients in a balanced diet. The damage to your liver and other organs brought on by chronic, excessive alcohol consumption will cause severe problems that can lead to other vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The long-term consequences of these deficiencies can be life-threatening. Moderation remains the recommendation for alcohol consumption for a reason.

Reviewed on 2/17/2016
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