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Do I Have to Give up Alcohol to Be a Healthy Person?

May 16, 2014

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I’m Maria Marlowe, a Health Coach and author of Detox without the Deprivation. In my “Ask Health Coach Maria” series, I answer your health and wellness questions. Ask me your question here

Hi Maria,

I eat pretty healthfully, but I still like to drink a glass or two of wine in the evening. Am I sabotaging my healthy efforts by drinking alcohol? Do I have to give it up completely in order to be healthy?

Stacy K, Los Angles CA

Rest assured, you don’t necessarily have to become a teetotaler to be healthy. Of course you could, but if you choose not to, you can incorporate that glass of wine into your healthy life without ill effect. You just need to understand how alcohol affects your body, which will help you determine how much, how often, and in what context drinking can fit into a healthy lifestyle.   

First, the cold hard facts on alcohol:

Alcohol reduces your fat-burning ability. 

When choosing an alcoholic beverage, you may want to be less concerned with the calories, and more concerned with its alcohol content, or “proof”. A higher proof beverage contains more alcohol by volume. When you drink alcohol, it’s broken down into acetate, which your body will burn for fuel before it tackles any other type of calorie you’ve consumed or stored.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that ingesting 24g of alcohol (which amounts to slightly less than either: two twelve ounce beers, or two 5 oz glasses of wine, or two 1.5 oz shots of an 80 proof liquor, like gin, vodka, rum, or whiskey) led to a 73% decrease in lipid oxidation, aka, your ability to burn fat.

While the effects are only temporary, consistent drinking means that your fat-burning consistently takes the back seat. I typically advise my clients to limit drinking to no more than 2-3 times a week.

People on average eat 20% more calories when they drink. 

If you’re going to drink, you may want to eat beforehand. Studies show that when people drink with their meal, on average they consume 20% more calories than they normally would have. Researchers speculate that drinking either interferes with satiety cues, or just your self-restraint.

Beer belly is real…sort of. 

Habitual excess consumption of alcohol in the form of wine or spirits is indeed linked to a larger waist-to-hip ratio.

Interestingly, the study that came to this conclusion didn’t find the same correlation in beer drinkers. So maybe it should be renamed Spirit Belly?

Moderate drinkers, those who stick to no more than 1-2 drinks in one drinking session, and not necessarily daily, should be able to avoid “spirit belly.” So, a glass of wine with dinner, or a weekend cocktail or two shouldn’t sabotage your healthy lifestyle.

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Alcohol nullifies your workout. 

I’m sure you’ve heard that alcohol is dehydrating, but what many people don’t realize is that your body cannot perform a myriad of other functions when it is dehydrated, including building muscle.

The results from your workout happen after you’re done, when your body is recovering and repairing, not during the workout itself. In order to build muscles, the body needs to be in a rested and properly hydrated state with the correct nutrients. Because alcohol leaves you dehydrated, it can inhibit the recovery phase of your workout, and therefore make your gym time seem futile. If you are going to drink, it is imperative that you drink ample water before, during, and after.

Alcohol stresses the liver. 

Your liver can only process so much alcohol (and remember, that’s not its only job…it has to process toxins from food and pollution, too!). Excess alcohol consumption can lead to fatty liver disease, cirrhosis, and even death. Keep your liver healthy by only giving it moderate amounts of alcohol that it can handle easily. 

The interesting plot twist here is that there have been dozens of studies that suggest moderate to heavy drinkers actually live longer than abstainers. Wait, rewind…what? How can something that we know can be poisonous to the body prolong our life?

My guess is that it has less to do with the actual alcohol, and more to do with the environment in which it’s consumed.

Drinking is more often than not a social event, a way to unwind and connect with friends both old and new. As social creatures, we crave companionship, and actually need it to survive. The people who abstain from drinking likely also abstain from more social events. The detriments of loneliness are real. When we are cut off from a social network, we are more likely to die from just about everything, especially heart disease. At Integrative Nutrition, we refer to this need as Vitamin L, for love. 

Drinking allows us a way to kick back and nurture our relationships, and it is these relationships that give us a full, happy, and ultimately healthy life.

So, a glass of wine or a pina colada with your friends can be in sync with a healthy lifestyle.  Just keep the drinking in moderation by putting the brakes on after 1-2 drinks, drinking plenty of water, and limiting the number of days you drink to no more than 2 or 3 times a week.

And keep in mind, you could always order a mocktail when you’re out with friends, too!

No matter whether you choose to drink moderately or abstain completely, be sure not to let it put the damper on you social life.

If you’ve cut back on alcohol, tell us how it has affected your health in the comments below.

Maria Marlowe is a Certified Health Coach and regular Wellness Today Contributor. Get your health question answered in her next column by sending her an email at