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Drinking Your Calories


Submitted By: Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited By: Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

No matter where you look, alcohol is a common part of our culture.  In 2014, each Vermonter drank about 3 gallons of pure alcohol, or about 76 drinks!1 As it makes such a frequent appearance in our lives, it’s natural to be curious about how exactly alcohol impacts overall health.  It turns out that the answer is pretty complicated!

The impact of alcohol on long-term health really depends on the disease in question and the amount of alcohol you drink.  Studies suggest that moderate drinking, which is no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, might reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke, and may increase overall quality of life.2 On the other hand, heavy drinking, defined as two or more drinks per day for women and three or more for men, increases your risk for cancer of the colon, rectum, breast, mouth, throat, and liver.3 Excessive drinking, defined as more than four drinks per day for women and more than five drinks per day for men, is known to damage brain function and memory in both the immediate and long term.4

In the short term, the effects of drinking are less positive.  Alcohol reduces your ability to absorb some vitamins and minerals, especially the B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamins A, D, and E.  Alcohol metabolism also uses up some B vitamins, so drinking a lot can put you at risk for a deficiency – this is especially bad if you are physically active, because B vitamins play an enormous role in energy metabolism.5 If you drink heavily, you should make sure you are getting enough of these nutrients either through foods or supplements, and think about asking your doctor to check your levels at your next appointment.  Additionally, drinking can also lead to drops in blood sugar, so if you have diabetes it is especially important to make sure you eat while you drink and check your blood sugar consistently.6 Lastly, alcohol will make you dehydrated and interrupt your sleep cycles, so you will not sleep as deeply after a night of drinking.7

On top of all that, alcohol can really get in the way of weight maintenance and weight loss goals.  One standard drink contains about 100 calories just from alcohol.  One standard drink is either 12 ounces of beer at 5% alcohol by volume, defined as the amount of ethanol alcohol in a drink and abbreviated ABV, 5 ounces of wine at 12% ABV, or 1.5 ounces of liquor at 40% ABV.4 When you consider that the alcohol content of most craft beers ranges from 6-10% ABV, your 12-ounce bottle might actually hold two drinks!  Mixed drinks usually contain 3 ounces of liquor, or two standard drinks.  The amount of calories in a mixed drink will vary depending on how it’s made and what it’s mixed with, but it will definitely have additional calories from sugar and fat.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans consider alcohol to be “discretionary” calories, or the calories you can eat after you’ve met your daily need for vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein, and fat.  Discretionary calories could mean a dessert or sweet snack.  It isn’t a good idea to limit your food intake to “save” calories for alcoholic drinks.  Doing that can worsen nutrient deficiencies, lead to low blood sugar levels, and prevent you from getting the right amount of carbohydrate, protein, and fat to stay healthy.  Instead, plan ahead and use your day’s discretionary calories for a drink.

If you do choose to drink alcohol, keep these tips in mind:

  • Drink in moderation: for women, this means one standard drink per day, and two standard drinks for men.
  • Take note of the alcohol content of your drink.  If beer has more than 5% ABV or wine has more than 12% ABV, make sure to pour yourself a smaller glass or share your drink with someone else.
  • Sip your drink to make it last longer.

While alcohol consumption that follows the recommendations can fit into a healthy meal plan, it is not a necessary part of the diet.  Especially if you’re hoping to lose weight, make sure you enjoy your drinks in moderation.  Focus on eating enough fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains, and make sure you haven’t eaten more calories than you need before you decide to drink!


  1.  Total alcohol consumption per capita by U.S. state 2014 | Statistic. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/442848/per-capita-alcohol-consumption-of-all-beverages-in-the-us-by-state/. Accessed September 28, 2016.
  2.  Sayed BA, French MT. To your health!: Re-examining the health benefits of moderate alcohol use. Soc Sci Med. 2016;167:20-28. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.08.034.
  3.  Cao Y, Giovannucci EL. Alcohol as a Risk Factor for Cancer. Semin Oncol Nurs. 2016;32(3):325-331. doi:10.1016/j.soncn.2016.05.012.
  4.  2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines – health.gov. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed September 28, 2016.
  5.  DiPlacido L. What Are the Effects of Alcohol on Vitamins & Minerals? LIVESTRONG.COM. http://www.livestrong.com/article/375909-what-are-the-effects-of-alcohol-in-vitamins-minerals/. Accessed September 28, 2016.
  6.  American Diabetes Association 1701 North Beauregard Street, ria, 1-800-Diabetes V 22311. Alcohol. American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/making-healthy-food-choices/alcohol.html. Accessed September 28, 2016.
  7.  Roehrs T, Roth T. Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-2/101-109.htm. Accessed September 28, 2016.

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