Alcoholic Beverages: What You Should Know

Be honest now.  When alcoholic beverages are involved, what type of drinker are you--a teetotaler, a moderate drinker, a heavy drinker, or (I hope not) an excessive drinker? Let's see what research can tell us about the various categories.  And let's come up with some tips for women, seniors, calorie counters, or just an average any-sex drinker wanting to make good health decisions.


The government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends the following: women should drink no more than one alcoholic beverage per day and men no more than two.  That's helpful but not specific enough, you say. You're still left wondering about the size of one drink. Here's the answer (printed on the NIH website and in the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter, among many other sources): a standard drink equals 5 ounces of wine, l2 ounces of beer, or 1½ ounces of 80-proof liquor.  All of these contain about 14 grams of distilled spirits with about 40% alcohol content.


Why are women advised to drink less than men?


This isn't discrimination against the fair sex.  It's because (a fact that probably won't surprise you) women are different from men.  NIH (the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) points out these two facts: 1)... "on average, women weigh less than men." 2)... "alcohol resides predominantly in body water, and, pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men." The result is that, if  John and Jane weigh the same and drink the same quantity of alcohol, Jane's BAC (blood alcohol concentration) will be higher.


The NIH website goes on to explain that women (unfair though it may seem) are more susceptible to alcohol-related heart disease, brain damage (especially in their teens), and breast cancer.  Furthermore, a pregnant woman who drinks risks harming her baby's physical, cognitive, and/or behavioral development. Here's a scary prediction by NIH: "Any drinking during pregnancy can be harmful."  Other women who should avoid consuming alcohol: those that are trying to conceive and those taking medicine that can interact negatively with alcohol.


National Institutes of Health surveys reported that the rate of drinking for women ages 60 and older is rising faster than among older men. The Harvard Women's Health Watch (the June, 2017 newsletter) discussed these figures. Statistics show that, from 1997 through 2014, the  proportion of older women drinkers increased "at a rate of 1.6% a year, compared with 0.7 for older men." Furthermore, binge drinking--consuming four or more alcoholic beverages within two hours--increased by 3.7% a year among women.  Why is this happening? The researchers think that it may be because baby boomers tended to drink more in their earlier adult years and just continued the same habit as seniors. Why is this worrisome? The article says that, at any level of alcohol consumption, women have a higher BAC concentration than men, so excessive drinking "puts them at greater risk of cognitive impairment and falls."  Excessive drinking, including binge drinking, causes about 23,000 deaths among women and children annually, says the CDC.


Are the calorie counts a secret?


The Berkeley Wellness Letter mentions this contrast: almost every packaged food we purchase has a Nutrition Facts label that tells the calorie count (among other information).  But we don't find this info on a bottle of wine, beer, or spirits. However, here's some good news (or bad, depending upon your point of view): thanks to the Berkeley Wellness Letter, I'm in possession of such info and am about to reveal it.  If you don't want to know, STOP READING NOW. Still with me? Okay. Here goes.  One standard serving of the following beverages has the following calories (or range of calories):


Wine: 100-190 calories (depending upon the amount of alcohol and sugar)


Beer: 55-200 calories


Whiskey): 100  calories for 80-proof whiskey


Sweet dessert wines: about 200 calories per 5 ounces


Cocktails with chocolate liqueur, sugary syrups, and/or heavy cream: more than 200  calories


White Russian (vodka, Kahlua, and cream): 400 calories for 4 ounces  


A recent survey found that about 20% of men and 6% of women average more than 300 calories a day  from alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, the Wellness Letter reminds us, "...alcohol can have a disinhibiting effect on appetite control, so drinking before or during a meal may lead you to overeat."


Help for dieters is on the way. Be on the look-out for beer cans and bottles that tell you the calorie count.  Many U.S. companies have agreed to do this. By the end of 2020, most domestic and some imported beer will list calorie counts.  Dr. Regenstein points out that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (which is regulated by the Department of Treasury) discouraged companies for providing information about calorie counts on containers of alcohol.


Some wine products, especially those containing less than 7% alcohol (including wine coolers and cooking wines) already have Nutrition Facts.  Also, alcoholic drinks that are labeled low calorie, light, or low-carb are required to list calories and other nutrition info.


The Berkeley Wellness Letter article  on alcoholic beverages concludes with several ways to cut calories from them, such as these:

• Switch to "light or "low-calorie" beers.

• For mixed drinks, avoid fruit juice and regular tonic water;  switch to seltzer, fresh lime, or cucumber juice.

• Ask bartenders about the amount of alcohol poured into a drink to avoid supersized cocktails with more alcohol and more calories.


What does  research tell us about the benefits and risks of drinking alcohol?


Everyone has heard about the harm that can come from excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages, and we all know that some people, for various medical reasons, must steer clear of alcoholic completely.  However, in general, there are medical benefits for those who drink MODERATELY. Medical Daily lists these seven ways: Moderate drinking can 1) lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, 2) lengthen your life,  3) protect against erectile dysfunction ,

4) help prevent the common cold , 5) decrease chances of developing dementia  6) reduce the risk of gallstones, and 7) lower the chance of developing diabetes.  


Two 2017 studies suggested that alcohol may or may not not be so good for your brain.  (Don't blame me for these confusing, contradictory, results; I'm just the messenger.)


One study (conducted in a middle to upper-middle class mostly white neighborhood in San Diego, California) found that moderate drinking may be associated with a reduced risk of   dementia in seniors. The researchers followed more than 1,300 adults from 1983-2013. Those who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol 5-7 days a week were twice as likely to show no signs of dementia than nondrinkers, according to a 2107 article in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.  The Chicago Tribune published this article "Moderate drinking linked to reduced risk of dementia" August 9, 2017, which covered this research.  


The second study, discussed in the Harvard Women's Health Watch,  September 2017), was conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford and University College London.  It found that even moderate consumers of alcohol developed " higher rates of cognitive decline and brain shrinkage than their teetotaling counterparts."  This study followed 550 men and women for 30 years and found that the harmful effects were greatest among those who drank the most (17 or more standard drinks per week).  "The more people drank, the more atrophy occurred in the brain's hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure in the brain that plays a role in storing memories."


Researchers  involved in both studies warned that the associations they found did not definitely prove that alcohol caused the conclusions. Other factors  that the study participants had in common could have been more significant factors. At any rate, scientists seem to agree that excessive alcohol consumption is harmful.


A recent study suggested that even moderate alcohol consumption may increase blood pressure. This study involved more than 17,000 U.S. adults.  It showed that moderate alcohol consumption—seven to 13 drinks per week—substantially raises one’s risk of high blood pressure (hypertension).  The research will be presented at the upcoming American College of Cardiology’s 68th Annual Scientific Session.


Does my expensive bottle of wine always contain what the label says it does?


Well, wine fraud is not unheard of.  In fact, quite recently, Food Safety News reported  that at least 11,000 bottles of red wine were seized in Italy  because they contained a lower quality of wine than the label indicated, and three people were arrested.  This fraud involved preparing low-quality wine and selling it labeled as a more expensive product to Italian and international markets, mostly in Belgium and Germany.


Two scientists who serve on the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board commented on the problem. To avoid being cheated, food scientist  Dr. Joe Regenstein offered this advice: "I think the key is to buy from a wine store that you have a relationship with as a regular customer."


Here's what food process engineer Dr. Tim Bowser told us regarding wine fraud: "I believe there is a lot going on in this area. Many wines are high value, and counterfeiting can be extremely profitable. Even low-cost wines sold in bulk can be adulterated with cheap ingredients to make the sale more profitable. The most common adulterant would be water. Other adulterants include alcohol, wine (other wines that do not appear on the label or would violate the label’s declaration), colorants, sweeteners, and flavorings. I read that an estimated 30,000 bottles of fake imported wine are sold per hour in China! Wine fraud (and food fraud in general) has been going on for just about as long as people have been purchasing food. Today we have many high-tech laboratory devices and methods used to analyze foods and detect fraud. But it is difficult to keep up with the tactics of the criminals because there are so many ways to cheat, and the criminals have access to the same tools the good guys have."



Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Department of Food Science


National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH)  "Women and Alcohol"


Medical Daily "7 Health Benefits of Drinking Alcohol" July 10, 2013


University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter  "Alcohol: hidden calories" July 2017.


Harvard Women's Health Watch "Alcohol, even in moderation, could harm your brain"

September 2017.


Harvard Women's Health Watch "Drinking--and  binge drinking--growing more common among older women" June 2017.


Chicago Tribune "Moderate drinking linked to reduced risk of dementia" August 9, 2017.


Food  Safety News "Authorities shutdown international wine  fraud operation; three in Italy arrested"


Medical Express "Moderate alcohol consumption linked with high blood pressure" 

American College of Cardiology “Moderate Alcohol Consumption Linked With High Blood Pressure”


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