The Science of Alcohol
Whether it’s a beer at a football game, margaritas and dancing, or a glass of wine at dinner, all alcohol is derived from the same process. Fermented yeast, sugars, and starches produce ethanol which creates the signature taste and feel of alcoholic drinks.
From a nutrition perspective, 1 gram of alcohol provides 7 calories in addition to the energy we consume throughout the day. We consider these drinks “empty calories” because they do not provide nutritional benefits. Bottom line - alcohol is a treat and should be enjoyed with intention.
Alcohol’s Impact on Health
Drinking alcohol is associated with an array of impacts on our health including:
Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
Early aging and wrinkles
Increased risk of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and cancer (especially breast cancer)
Based on the most recent government guidelines, the daily alcoholic beverage limit is 1 drink for women and 2 drinks for men. However, expert opinion from latest research suggests even less frequent alcohol intake and countries like Canada pose stricter guidelines around drinking.
(MN Department of Health, 2022)
In addition to how frequently you drink, it’s important to know what a serving size looks like. Use these strategies to help portion your drinks:
Attention wine-drinkers - no top offs! Try to finish the glass before getting a second pour.
Dilute your drink with bubbly water to make it last longer.
Set an intention for how much you want to drink and pace yourself to stick to it.
Mindful Drinking Tips:
1. Mind the sugar and calories
When placing your drink order, choosing a drink you’ll enjoy is important. There are some choices that will be better suited to your health goals than others. Certain mixers like tonics, sodas, juices, and liqueurs can be loaded with sugar. Drinks with a higher alcohol content, like India Pale Ales and spirits with a high “Alcohol by Volume” (ABV) are going to be significantly higher in calories.
Tonic (high sugar)
Sour mix (high sugar)
India pale ales (high calorie)
Port/dessert wine (high sugar)
High ABV liquor (high calorie)
Fresh lime juice
Regular or light beer
Standard ABV liquor
2. Avoid drinking on an empty stomach
The body absorbs alcohol faster on an empty stomach. If you have a night of plans, eat before or with your drink to slow absorption. Pairing a balanced meal with your cocktail will also make you less likely to snack and overindulge throughout the night.
3. Stay hydrated
Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that it’s easier to become dehydrated while drinking. This dehydration can contribute to the aging effects of alcohol and may even leave you feeling worse the next day. A good rule of thumb is to alternate alcoholic beverages with still or sparkling water.
4. Opt for a “mocktail”
If you’re at an event or happy hour and you don’t want to veer away from the alcoholic drinks, ask for a low-sugar mocktail. A go-to option that you can order at most bars is a soda water with lime juice and fresh mint leaves. Ask for a splash of your favorite fruit juice for some extra flavor.
You can absolutely have an occasional drink at celebrations, holidays and hangouts while still meeting your wellness goals. However, the science inevitably shows that drinking alcohol is associated with poor health outcomes. Frequent drinking can also steer us away from goals around staying hydrated, mindful eating, or sleep hygiene. For these reasons, we encourage you to consider alcohol a “treat” and practice enjoying it in moderation.
Canada Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. (2023). Drinking Less is Better. https://www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2023-05/CGAH-Drinking-Less-is-Better-en.pdf
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022a, April 19). Alcohol Basics. Alcohol and Public Health. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm
Minnesota Department of Health. (2022, October 3). What is a drink of alcohol?. MN Department of Health. https://www.health.state.mn.us/communities/alcohol/basics/drinkdefinition.html
United States Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). USDA-HHS Response to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: Using the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s Report to Develop the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/about-dietary-guidelines/related-projects/usda-hhs-response-national-academies-sciences-engineering
How to make informed choices about alcohol