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Alcoholic beverages: Balancing the benefits and risks

Rohini Diniz

Consumption of alcoholic beverages is part of the culture of people in most parts of the world. Drinking alcohol can be beneficial or harmful as the effects of alcohol vary from person to person, depending on the age, health status and the amount drunk. While research studies have shown that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol particularly red wine, may protect healthy adults from developing coronary heart disease, heavy drinking over a long period of time can damage the liver and heart, increase the risk of developing cancer, harm an unborn child, contribute to depression, violence and problems in relationships and is a major cause of preventable death in most countries.

The word alcohol is derived from the Arabic word ‘al-kohl’ which means subtle. Alcohol is a colourless volatile liquid with a characteristic taste and odour that is prepared by the fermentation of fruit juices, malt, molasses, rice, etc. The active ingredient in alcoholic beverages is a simple compound called ethanol which affects the body in many different ways. It directly influences the stomach, brain, heart, gallbladder and liver. It affects levels of lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and insulin in the blood, as well as inflammation and coagulation. It also alters mood, concentration, and coordination.

There are three main classes of alcoholic beverages – wines, malted beverages (beer) and distilled liquors (whisky, brandy, rum and gin) that contain different strengths of alcohol which is expressed in terms of percentage of volume or weight. It is therefore important to know how much alcohol each beverage contains.

When it comes to alcoholic beverages, there is no universally accepted definition of a standard drink. In the United States, one standard drink is any drink that contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol and is equivalent to any one of the following:

12 ounces or 350 ml of regular beer (about 5 per cent alcohol)

5 ounces or 148 ml of wine (about 12 per cent alcohol)

1.5-ounces or 44 ml or a shot of 80-proof (40 per cent alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor – whisky, rum, vodka and gin.

Alcohol is pure carbohydrate and yields 7 kcal of energy per gram. It does not require digestion and is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the blood stream right from the first sip. Alcohol is rapidly absorbed on an empty stomach while the presence of food particularly fatty food delays stomach emptying and allows greater absorption. The liver contains enzymes that can metabolise alcohol only small amounts of alcohol at a time, leaving the excess to circulate throughout the body. The intensity of the effect of alcohol on the body is directly related to the amount consumed.

Alcohol’s immediate effects can appear within about 10 minutes of drinking. As one drinks, there is an increase in the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level. The higher the BAC, the more impaired one becomes by the effects of alcohol.

Alcohol affects every organ in the body. It is a central nervous system depressant that interferes with the brain’s communication pathways affecting the functioning of the brain resulting in mood and behaviour changes making it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.


To be continued. . .

(The writer is a consultant nutritionist with 19 years of experience, practicing at Panaji and can be contacted on


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