Eat, Drink and Be Wary
Carolyn Classick-Kohn,MS,RD

Good news travels fast. Most people who don't know what HDL cholesterol or triglycerides are have heard that drinking alcohol can reduce risk of heart disease. What a great reason to enjoy a beer or glass of wine! But what's the upshot?

Most science and medical experts have carefully avoided making across the board recommendations to drink alcohol to improve risk of heart disease and to live longer because of all the downsides to drinking alcohol.

The Upside

The largest study on alcohol consumption was conducted in the United States by the American Cancer Society. Their conclusion was that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol lowers risk, but that drinking more than 2 drinks per day is associated with an increased risk of death by cancer:

One drink =  lowers heart disease risk as well as drinking 2 or more drinks - no need to overconsume!
Two drinks = cancer rate is the same as nondrinkers and total death and heart disease death is lower. 
Three drinks = increased risk of death by cancer.
Four drinks = total death and cancer death increases.

The Downsides

One drink may be protective, but not everyone has the same response to alcohol. Those who have the genetic make-up that predisposes to alcohol abuse, those who don't metabolize alcohol well, those who have certain diseases, have existing liver problems, or are taking medications that cause side effects when alcohol is consumed, and those who are pregnant should avoid drinking alcohol. And although alcohol may raise HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol), there are better ways to do this - how about reducing body fat and exercising to raise HDL levels? In addition, drinking alcohol can raise triglyceride levels, which is another risk factor for heart disease, so the effects of alcohol vary from one person to another.

Alcohol and Weight Gain
For those who want to gain body weight, you need to increase calorie intake, but there are much better choices than alcohol to do this. Alcohol is very high in calories, but because alcohol is converted to fatty acids when it is metabolized, the extra calories are more likely to be stored as body fat. Healthy gains in weight come from a carefully planned diet, balanced in nutrition, not by the addition of low-nutrition calories like alcohol, sugar and low-nutrients snacks and desserts. Enjoy these foods occasionally, but don't use them for gaining weight!   

Alcohol and Weight Loss
For those trying to lose body fat, drinking alcohol is going to slow down your weight loss progress, and again, because it converts to body fat more readily than most other nutrients, it's not the best choice for improving body fat percentage.   

An Occasional Drink
If you want to add an occasional alcohol beverage to your weight loss or weight gain plan, you can add it your plan and consider that these are extra calories. Again, for weight loss, it will add up to extra calories that may slow your progress. You will need to increase your physical activity to make up for it!

Or, if you want to continue making progress towards weight loss, and would like to have one or two drinks a week, you can substitute one drink (90 Calories worth) for 2 fat exchanges (because alcohol is metabolized most like fat). I do not recommend substituting more than 2 drinks a week on a weight loss plan because many of you don't have a lot of calories to work with - better to have these calories as nutritious food instead of a lot of empty calories. And of course, drinking alcohol is at your discretion, it's not part of the diet, so use your own judgment based upon your personal health issues and habits, and if you choose to have an alcohol beverage, you now have some reasonable guidelines to go on.

Calorie content of common servings of alcohol drinks
one shot (1 1/2 ounces ) 90 proof = 110 calories
100 proof = 124 calories
12 ounce beer (one typical bottle) 146 Calories
3 1/2 ounces of table wine = 72 Calories
Sweet wines  3 1/2 ounces 158 Calories