Everyone has their own individual motivation for enjoying alcohol – be it the taste, a way to relax or unwind after a workday, a stress-reliever, or a social outlet. But how does alcohol impact our health?
Alcohol is not an essential nutrient and despite widespread belief that red wine is a “health food” due to its antioxidant content there isn’t anything in red wine that we can’t get from other plant-based foods such as berries, red grapes, or cocoa powder. When enjoyed in moderation, alcohol can be part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle. However, research has found that even moderate consumption of alcohol can increase the risk of cancer (especially for women) and may not be as health promoting as initially thought in terms of decreasing risk of heart disease and stroke.
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The pathways of alcohol metabolism have numerous consequences and can result in the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) leading to oxidative stress. Not only can alcohol cause oxidative damage but chronic alcohol consumption can influence other metabolic pathways contributing to fatty liver, insulin resistance, and hyperlipidemia.
Due to the risks associated with the excess consumption of alcohol, when consuming alcohol the goal should be to limit consumption to within recommended guidelines.
Recommended Alcohol Guidelines
Men should aim to stay below 2 drinks daily (up to 14 drinks/ week) and women should aim to stay below 1 ½ drinks daily (up to 10 drinks/week). It’s also advisable to incorporate days during the week where no alcohol is consumed. Note alcohol allowances cannot be “saved up” for weekends – from a health perspective, the daily recommended limits still apply on weekends regardless of how many days you have abstained from alcohol during the week.
It’s also important to be mindful of serving sizes. One standard drink is as follows:
• Beer = 12oz
• Wine = 5oz
• Liquor/spirits = 1.5oz
Following these guidelines can be a challenge for many. Often, individuals find success by making gradual, sustainable changes focused around minimizing the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption, while over time, making more significant (but still sustainable) changes that fit into their individual lifestyle.
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SIX STRATEGIES FOR ENJOYING ALCOHOL WITHOUT COMPROMISING HEALTH
1. MAKE A PLAN: Use a SMART goal strategy (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Related) to plot realistic changes to alcohol intake modeled after the recommended guidelines. This may include committing to 2-3 alcohol-free days each week, or pouring drinks that meet suggested serving sizes for a standard drink unit (SDU).
2. PACE YOURSELF & HYDRATE: The body can process about 1 SDU/hour. Drinking water before and after each alcoholic beverage can help manage intake and hydrate the body. Hydration is also important when consuming alcohol because alcohol acts as a diuretic (causing the decreased reabsorption of water by the kidneys and the increased production of urine).
3. AVOID SUGARY DRINKS & MIXERS: Some alcoholic beverages are packed with refined sugar. Try to avoid sugar laden alcoholic beverages such as those made with simple syrups, fruit juices, or soda as mixers.
4. COMBINE DRINKING WITH MEALS: Enjoy your alcohol around meal times to help reduce the rate of ethanol absorption, reduce peak blood values of ethanol, and to help decrease alcohol-induced irritation to your digestive system.
5. ENGAGE IN HEALTHY STRESS-MANAGEMENT ACTIVITIES: If you are using alcohol to combat stress, it isn’t helping you in the long-term. Explore alternative, healthy strategies for stress management like yoga, mindfulness meditation, outdoor leisure, or other activities that you enjoy to minimize stress and care for yourself.
6. EAT A HEALTHY, BALANCED DIET: Focus on eating a variety of colourful plant foods every day - vegetables, whole fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. This will help ensure your diet is high in antioxidants to help offset the harmful effects of excess alcohol consumption.
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REFRESHING ALCOHOL ALTERNATIVES
With patio weather upon us, we often see an increase in alcohol intake. Water may be the healthiest choice, but it isn’t exactly the most exciting substitute for alcohol. Here are a few refreshing and tasty alcohol alternatives:
- Sparkling Water: Choose a variety that is naturally lowin- sodium and sugar-free. Try adding frozen or fresh
berries, diced cucumber, or a sprig of mint for added flavour.
- Kombucha Tea: This fermented tea drink is not only a refreshing alternative to alcohol but is also health promoting for our digestive tract. Try tossing a few fresh strawberry slices in a bottle of ginger kombucha tea with a squeeze of lime.
- Iced Unsweetened Herbal Tea: Think beyond that bottle of sugar-sweetened black tea and try unsweetened green tea, mint tea, or rooibos tea over ice. Add a squeeze of lemon, lime, or orange.