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Yes, raise a glass … but not too many

To your health! Cheers! L’chaim!

With holiday season, more and more people raise their glasses to celebrations. It’s great to get together for the holidays and have a toast, but in reality, that alcoholic drink may not be “to your health” after all.

When drinking in moderation, the negative effects of alcohol are relatively negligible for most people. By contrast, binge drinking and heavy drinking are associated with long- and short-term health concerns. Binge drinking is defined as drinking more than five drinks in a sitting for men, and more than four drinks in a sitting for women. Heavy drinking is defined as 15 drinks per week for men and eight for women.

“Around the holidays, it’s very common to circle around the bar and have a few drinks,” said Geisinger dietitian Samantha Cortese, RDN, LDN, CDE. “For some people, it’s tradition; for others, it’s a way to drum up some holiday cheer. Despite the jolly intentions, alcohol can have negative effects, especially when consumed in excess or by at-risk groups. This holiday, focus on drinking in moderation or try swapping out alcoholic drinks altogether—your body will thank you.” 

Calories and sugar
Unfortunately, calories still count, even during holidays. And because it isn’t mandatory for alcohol producers to print nutrition facts on their bottles, most don’t do it. But that doesn’t mean alcohol is nutritionally neutral.

“Alcohol is a hidden source of calories, and most people don’t really think about it,” said Cortese. “An average drink may contain between 100 and 150 calories, and that’s not even counting if it’s mixed with anything. If you’re watching your calorie intake, be conscious of how many drinks you have around the holidays—they add up.”

In addition to calories, sugar may be hiding in your favorite drinks. Through the brewing or distilling process, most alcohol is actually low in terms of sugar content. However, drinks like liqueurs and mixed drinks may be adding more sugar into the equation than you know. 

An ounce of soda or tonic water can add 3 to 4 grams (or about a teaspoon) of sugar to your drink. As a result, drinks such as margaritas, piña coladas and daiquiris can contain over 30 grams of sugar per serving.

Being conscious of the amount of sugar and calories in drinks isn’t easy, but by drinking in moderation, you can avoid throwing off your diet with large amounts of added sugar.

Medication risk
You should always take your pills with a liquid, but that liquid shouldn’t be in the liquor cabinet. Mixing alcohol and medications can have unexpected and serious effects.

If you’re on any medications, talk to your doctor about how your medications interact with alcohol. Some may change or increase the effects of the medications or cause side effects like dizziness, nausea, vomiting and depression. In rare cases, some medications may have severe interactions with alcohol, causing symptoms like internal bleeding, overdose and poisoning.

Every medication interacts differently with alcohol, so talk to your doctor about how your medications impact your ability to drink. If you’re unsure, err on the side of safety and abstain from alcohol.

Health concerns
“The short-term risks from alcohol mostly stem from impairment,” said Cortese. “These are the typical risks of being ‘tipsy’ or drunk. Alcohol puts you more at risk for injuries such as burns, falls, physical altercations, drownings and vehicle crashes. In more severe cases, alcohol poisoning is also a concern. The long-term effects of drinking are high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, alcoholism, low levels of nutrients such as B-vitamins as well as gastrointestinal damage. These effects can be avoided by drinking in moderation and drinking non-alcoholic beverages.”

Recent studies have also found links between alcohol and cancer. It has been shown to increase the risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver and breast. Studies show that alcohol also increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. If you have cancer or symptoms of dementia, avoid alcohol—especially in excess.

If you’re of age and in good health, a few drinks probably won’t hurt you. But if the holidays are another day in a schedule of binge drinking, you may be causing long-term damage to your body. Keep track of how much alcohol you drink this holiday, and don’t be afraid to swap out a drink for a virgin cocktail. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.
 
Samantha Cortese is a dietitian who sees patients at Geisinger. To schedule an appointment, please call 800-275-6401.

 

wellness rethink holiday drinks