The Drawbacks of Drinking

Alcohol has a number of caveats. First, the line between healthy and unhealthy drinking appears to be very thin.

In the recent Harvard study, women who had more than about 1 1/2 drinks a day had a 30 percent higher risk of elevated blood pressure than nondrinkers did. Furthermore, alcohol’s effects on the body are of particular significance when you suffer from diabetes. The main threat is hypoglycemia. Alcohol is processed in the liver, which also stores and releases glucose. Result: Wine, beer, and spirits hinder the liver’s ability to release glucose, which can lead to hypoglycemia as much as a day after you drink. Moreover, symptoms of hypoglycemia can be similar to those of inebriation, making the danger harder to spot.

Another consideration is that alcoholic drinks have seven calories per gram — almost as much as fat — but provide no nutrition, making them a poor choice if you’re trying to lose weight. And if you’re taking medication, alcohol may be out of the question. Should you drink? Talk it over with your doctor or dietitian. If you get the okay to imbibe, here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind.

1. Keep it to one. Most studies find few risks and possible benefits from one drink a day or less. “One drink” is defined as a 12-ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine (about a half cup), or a 1 1/2- ounce shot of distilled spirits, such as scotch, whiskey, or vodka (mix only with sugar-free soda or water).

2. Eat something. Food slows the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, allowing the liver to better process glucose while handling the alcohol. Also try to nurse your drink over a couple of hours to further ease the burden on your liver.

3. Sidestep the special stuff. In addition to their calories from alcohol, sweet wines and liqueurs pack extra amounts of carbohydrate. Likewise, sugary sodas and other sweet mixers added to distilled spirits can boost the calorie quotient.

4. Exchange cautiously. As a rule, doctors and dietitians would prefer that you not drop a nutritious item from your meal plan to make room for alcohol. But for the record, alcoholic drinks (except for beer) count as two fat exchanges, which may be consistent with your dietary goals. Beer counts as one and a half fat exchanges and one starch exchange.

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