How much alcohol is too much? A nutritionist weighs in

How much should you really be drinking?
How much should you really be drinking?

Alcoholic drinks are enjoyed by many of us and they can help us relax, socialise and enjoy our meals. The downside, though, is that these drinks are dense in kilojoules and devoid of nutrients, and an excessive intake can contribute to our risk of chronic diseases.

Many South Africans have a drinking problem and our country ranks high compared to other countries in regard to alcohol consumption. And when it comes to road deaths, South Africa has a high number of fatalities caused by drunk driving. Up to 65% of road deaths are as a result of drunken driving.

It has been established that men are bigger drinkers than women. It also appears that the middle and lower income groups drink the most.

What is excessive drinking?

According to the definition formulated by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive drinking includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any drinking by pregnant women or people younger than age 21.

Binge drinking, the most common form of excessive drinking, can be defined as:

  • For women, consuming four or more drinks during a single occasion
  • For men, consuming five or more drinks during a single occasion

Heavy drinking can be defined as:

  • For women, consuming eight or more drinks per week
  • For men, consuming 15 or more drinks per week

What are the consequences?

The consequences of excessive alcohol intake include:

  • Weight gain
  • Increased blood pressure, which increases the risk for heart disease and stroke
  • Increased inflammation
  • Increased uric acid levels, which can trigger gout in some people
  • Increased risk of numerous cancers, especially lung cancer in smokers. If a cancerous tumour is already present, alcohol can speed up its development.
  • Liver disease and pancreatitis
  • Malabsorption of several nutrients

If you want to live a longer and healthier life it is time to sober up. Researchers have found that people drinking more than five 175ml glasses of wine or six small cans of beer per week were at the biggest risk of developing stroke, heart failure and fatal stroke. In addition, according to a study reviewing the global burden of disease, alcohol-attributable liver cancer and cirrhosis rank high and are entirely preventable.

To top it all, if you are 40 years or older and regularly drink between 10 to 18 glasses of wine or cans of beer each week, you will lower your life expectancy by approximately one to two years.

What is moderate consumption?

The American Heart Association recommends that if you drink on a regular basis, moderation is defined by enjoying one or two alcoholic drinks for men and one drink per day for women. This means one small glass (125ml) of wine, one can of beer (340 ml) or 25ml of spirits (containing 40% alcohol per volume).

Easy tips to reduce your intake

  • Alternate your alcoholic drinks with a sugar-free low-kilojoule non-alcoholic drink, such as sugar-free frizzy drinks with lemon slices or a Rock Shandy (½ sugar-free lemonade, ½ soda water, lemon and bitters).  
  • Add soda water to alcoholic beverages, such as wine, to decrease the alcohol and kilojoule content.
  • Reduce volumes of alcohol by using smaller glasses and adding lots of ice to drinks.
  • Drink slowly to reduce the number of drinks you consume per occasion.
  • Reconsider your mixers instead of mixing your spirits with sugary drinks or tonic water, switch to soda water and a dash of lime. 

Image credit: iStock

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