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Confused about booze


By: Nicole Senior - Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist

With Christmas just around the corner, there is a sleigh full of alcohol myths (and hopes) flying about. Don't be confused about booze. Here, we answer common questions to ensure you're armed with the facts this party season.

Do alcohol calories really count? Some people believe that because alcohol is toxic, the liver burns it for energy rather than storing it as fat, so the calories don't count. Sorry, no; while your body is busy burning the calories from your tipple, any unused calories from your food will be stored as fat. We may be stating the obvious, but if you are trying to lose your beer belly, drink less beer (and same goes for cider, wine, spirits and the rest).

Are low-carb beers healthier? Beer were never high in carbs (sugar) to begin with. Your typical lager-style beer generally contains 2% carbohydrate by volume, that's just 7.5g carbs in a 375ml can. While the empty calories from added sugar should be limited, those seeking our low-carb beers are missing the point. Alcohol is the real calorie contributor here, contributing to around 75% of the total energy content of beer. If you are looking for a healthier option, choose a lower alcohol beer instead. Ciders are very popular and they do contain more carbs. A standard apple cider contains 6.5% carbs; or 23g per 355ml bottle, however they do vary according to style (dry vs sweet). Sweet style mixed drinks known as 'alco-pops' (approx 4-5% alcohol) and spirits with mixers are available in no-added-sugar varieties and these represent a significant kilojoule saving, however take care as their sweetness makes them easy to over-consume.

What about lower alcohol wines? Some people think that lower alcohol wines are not a good option because they are laden with sugar. As an aside, alcohol is higher in calories and certainly worse for your health than sugar. However, we had a look at a New Zealand 25% lower alcohol Sauvignon Blanc and found that one glass (150mL) contained only 0.2g more sugar than your average white wine. More importantly, it also contains around 25% fewer calories! If you are watching your weight, lower alcohol wines are a better option.

Is red wine healthier than white? Many people believe the antioxidants in red wine make it a healthier option. In reality, both red and white wines contain antioxidants and a similar kilojoule and alcohol content. For your health it doesn't matter much what you drink, but how you drink it. Where wine may have an edge is because it is typically consumed with food, whereas beer and spirits aren't - it may be wine drinkers have better diets overall.

Is alcohol good for you? There are some cardiovascular benefits of drinking alcohol, but it very much depends on drinking in moderation, your age and your overall health profile. Drinking alcohol also increases cancer risk, particularly cancers of the liver, bowel and breast. As the benefits of drinking alcohol are not as certain as the risks, don't start drinking for your health.

Does giving alcohol to teens teach responsible drinking? Alcohol is not safe for children. It is a common belief that introducing alcohol to children teaches them to drink responsibly. In fact, it appears to have the opposite effect; early exposure in children appears to increase the risk of unsafe drinking as an adult. Also, don't forget that alcohol can also affect the development of the brain during the teenage years.

Does mixing your drinks worsen your hangover? We need more studies to find out if mixing alcoholic drinks worsens a hangover, although many people have personal experiences suggesting it does. We do know that even if the alcohol content is the same, some drinks affect your hangover more than others. This is because alcohol is not the only factor at play; you also need to consider the congeners in your drink. These are chemicals that give your drink colour. As a general rule, lighter coloured drinks such as white wine, vodka or gin contain fewer congeners. Darker drinks such as brandy and red wine contain more congeners, making the hangover worse.

What is the best hangover cure? Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but there is no such thing as a hangover cure. However, there are a few things that you can do to make it more bearable:
• Eat a meal before drinking to delay alcohol absorption.
• Don't push natural limits. Generally, your liver can process one standard drink per hour. Larger people can handle a little more alcohol while smaller people can handle less.
• Alcohol is dehydrating which will worsen your headache the next morning. Drink a glass of water between each alcoholic beverage.
• To combat low blood glucose levels, drink some fruit juice before bed and first thing when you wake up.

The un-plugged truth

• Alcohol is high in kilojoules/ calories and can contribute to holiday weight gain.
• If you want a lower calorie option, choose lower-alcohol drinks.
• There is no such thing as a hangover cure; prevention is everything.
• For long term health, men and women should drink on average no more than 2 standard drinks a day.
• To minimise short-term risk, drink no more than 4 standard drinks in one sitting (more than 4 is classified as binge drinking).
• Aim for at least 2 alcohol-free days per week.

(Thanks to Rachel Ananin AKA The Seasonal Dietitian for her assistance with this article).

Nicole Senior is an Accredited Nutritionist, author, consultant, cook, food enthusiast and mother who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious. For more from Nicole, check out her website.

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