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Alcohol is a strong part of Australian culture. It’s often associated with celebrations and significant events, such as weddings, but many Aussies also love to have a glass or two (or more!) on the average night.

If you find yourself indulging in your favourite beverage a little too often, it’s not only the hangovers and excess calories than can cause problems. Other serious issues, including poor health, violence, and drink driving can occur when high amounts of alcohol are consumed.

This guide will help you understand safe levels of alcohol consumption, and what impact alcohol can have on your health and weight.

Moderation is key

Plenty of research has analysed the effects of alcohol on health. The bottom line seems to be that, while heavy drinking can cause many health problems, moderate drinking (see the section What is moderate drinking? below) can sometimes be more beneficial than not drinking at all. Surprised?

However, the benefits of alcohol never apply to heavy drinking; abusive drinking only leads to harm to oneself, and to others.

Among the benefits of drinking in moderation are: a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes, and an improvement in memory function. Moderate consumption of alcohol is also thought to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and senile dementia, improve resistance to the common cold, and significantly reduce the risk of Peripheral Artery Disease.

While drinking small amounts of alcohol can have some health benefits, other approaches, such as regularly exercising, improving your diet and quitting smoking, achieve far better results than moderate drinking. So while a drink here and there in moderation might not harm you, it’s not a good reason to start drinking if you don’t already!

Heavy drinking can have harmful effects, including increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and some types of stroke, increased risk of some cancers, neurological damage, liver disease, pancreatitis, peptic ulcers and gastritis, heartburn, nutritional deficiencies, menstrual problems, anxiety, headaches, sleep disturbance and insomnia. Heavy or excessive drinking is also associated with relationship problems, legal complications, work absenteeism and violence.

What is moderate drinking?

In Australia, low-risk drinking is defined as:

Men: No more than 4 standard drinks (40g alcohol) per day on average, and no more than 6 standard drinks on any one day
Women: No more than 2 standard drinks (20g alcohol) per day on average, and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day

Everyone should have 1 or 2 alcohol-free days a week.

One standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol, and is equivalent to

  • 375 ml mid strength beer (3.5% Alc./Vol) – 1 can
  • 100 ml wine (12.5% Alc./Vol) – about 2/3 of a wine glass
  • 30 ml spirits (40% Alc./Vol) – 1 nip

And sorry folks! Saving all your daily drinks for one weekly occasion doesn’t cheat the system! In fact, this habit could be classified as “heavy drinking” and can lead to health problems. It is recommended that you have one or two alcohol-free days a week.

The rate at which you drink is also important:

Men: No more than 2 standard drinks in the first hour, and 1 per hour after that.

Women: No more than 1 standard drink per hour.

The definition of “moderate drinking” can vary for each individual, depending on factors such as age and weight. Women and adolescents are more prone to alcohol’s ill-effects due to their lower body weight, smaller livers and lesser capacity to metabolise alcohol. For some people, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

It is advisable not to drink at all if you:

  • Are pregnant or trying to conceive
  • Are currently taking medication (unless approved by your doctor or pharmacist)
  • Have a condition such as liver or heart disease
  • Plan to drive or use machinery
  • Are studying or need to concentrate

Other risks

As well as health complications, alcohol consumption can have other risks.

Drinking and driving. In Australia, it’s an offence to drive with a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 or higher. Many factors can affect your blood-alcohol concentration (BAC). For example, drinking on an empty stomach or having a high amount of body fat can mean you reach a higher BAC sooner than others.

With any amount of alcohol in your system, your driving skills, reflexes and ability to concentrate can be affected. Studies have shown that drivers are twice as likely to crash with a BAC of 0.05, seven times as likely to crash with a BAC of 0.08, and 25 times more likely to crash with a BAC of 0.15. Remember, extreme tiredness will also impair driving, particularly when combined with alcohol.

Interactions with medications. Drinking alcohol while taking certain medications can cause health problems. There are hundreds of medicines that should not be mixed with alcohol. Generally, alcohol combined with the medication will increase drowsiness, making driving and operating machinery far more dangerous. You also risk causing damage to your liver by drinking when using medication. If you are on any medication, ask your doctor whether it is safe for you to drink any alcohol.

Social and legal problems. Heavy drinking increases your potential for problems at home, at work, with friends, and even when interacting with strangers. These problems may include:

  • Arguments with your spouse and family members
  • Absence from or lateness to work
  • Committing or being the victim of violence

Alcohol and weight control

Drinking too much alcohol can contribute to obesity in several ways. There are 7 calories per gram of alcohol, which makes it fairly calorie-dense, and it is also thought to lessen the body’s ability to burn fat. If you drink too much, fat storage may be promoted, particularly in the belly, which is a health danger-zone.

Alcohol is problematic for people trying to lose weight. It can stimulate appetite, and if drinking is associated with eating high-calorie foods there is also a greater chance of consuming more calories, particularly in social situations. As well as being calorie-dense, the calories in alcohol are considered “empty”, meaning they provide no nutritional value. People trying to lose weight need to carefully control their calorie intake from alcohol.

That said, alcohol does not lead to weight gain as a rule. In fact, some studies show that moderate consumption of alcohol is often associated with a small weight-reduction in women. The reasons for this are not known, but alcohol appears to increase metabolic rate and also reduce the amount of sugar a person eats. The key concept, yet again, is moderation. Heavy drinking will cause weight gain.

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism

There are differences between alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking in which a person uses alcohol in a way that is harmful to themselves or others. A pattern of drinking in which one or more of the following situations occurs repeatedly throughout a 12-month period would be considered alcohol abuse:

  • Missing work or skipping childcare responsibilities because of drinking
  • Drinking in situations that can be dangerous, such as while driving
  • Arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol or for hurting someone while driving
  • Continued drinking despite ongoing alcohol-related tensions with friends and family

Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, is a disease. It is chronic, and can be lifelong and life-threatening. Alcoholism originates in the brain. In some people, alcohol’s long-term effects can change the way their brain reacts to alcohol. As a result, the urge to drink can be as compelling as their hunger for food. Genetic predisposition and environmental factors both contribute to the risk of alcoholism. Some typical characteristics of alcoholism are:

  • A strong need, craving or compulsion, to drink
  • The inability to stop drinking once you’ve started
  • Physical dependence on alcohol, including withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety after a period of heavy drinking
  • High tolerance or the need to increase the amount of alcohol consumed to feel its affects

Appropriate treatment for an alcohol-related problem depends on its severity. Speak to a health professional for advice.

How to calculate standard drinks

It’s important to keep track of the amount of alcohol you’re consuming so you can stay within the recommended safe levels. Counting the number of standard drinks you’re consuming is a much more reliable way to measure your alcohol intake than counting glasses, bottles, or cans, as these can vary in size considerably and therefore often contain more or less than one standard drink.

In Australia, all labeled drinks are required to state the number of standard drinks they contain. If a drink has no label, restaurant or bar staff can help identify you how many standard drinks are contained in the drink you’ve ordered.

The amount of standard drinks you’ve consumed can be calculated as follows:

Volume of container in litres x % alcohol by volume (ml/100ml) x 0.789* = The number of standard drinks

*The specific gravity of ethyl alcohol is 0.789

For example: For one stubbie (375 ml) of full strength beer (5% alcohol by volume):

0.375 x 5 x 0.789* = 1.5 standard drinks

Ten hints to avoid harmful drinking

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  1. Add up the alcohol you typically drink each day and on social occasions. Are you drinking within the low-risk limits? If not, come up with a strategy to cut down on your drinking habits.
  2. Compare the alcohol content of different drinks and opt for those with lower alcohol content. Request half measures of alcohol in cocktails and mixed drinks. Dilute your drinks, and keep topping up with non-alcoholic drinks.
  3. Try low alcohol or non-alcohol alternatives (e.g. fruit juices, diet soda, and mineral water, or even low-strength beer). Take your own to parties.
  4. Before drinking alcohol, quench your thirst with water and non-alcoholic drinks – particularly after sport or physical activity.
  5. Drink slowly. Chugging or drinking quickly is the major cause of illness and death from alcohol poisoning.
  6. Avoid drinking in “rounds”. Drink at your own pace, don’t try to keep up with anyone else.
  7. Have a non-alcoholic “spacer” between each drink (e.g. mineral water, water, diet soda, orange juice).
  8. Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Food slows the rate of alcohol absorption.
  9. Keep track of the number of drinks you’ve consumed, and know when it’s time to stop. Set a limit of the number of drinks you’ll have before you start drinking, and stick to it.
  10. Do not drive, swim, or operate machinery after drinking alcohol.
Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.
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