What is alcohol? 1



What is alcohol?

Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is an intoxicating ingredient found in beer, wine, and liquor. Alcohol is produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugars, and starches.

Besides essential nutrients - carbohydrate, protein, and fat - the only other substance that provides calories is alcohol. Alcohol provides 7 calories per gram.

Nearly all alcohol is consumed as drinks, principally beers, wines, spirits and ciders. Alcoholic drinks contain few other nutrients except for the bioactive flavonoids found in wine (mainly red wine).

Alcohol does not fall under the category of an essential nutrient because not having it in your diet does not lead to any sort of deficiency.

Alcoholic beverages primarily consist of water, alcohol (ethanol), and different amounts of sugar. The calories come from the alcohol and sugar and are considered "empty calories" because of the lack of the other essential nutrients. Alcoholic drinks that contain added sugar have even more energy.

If alcohol is consumed in addition to the normal diet, weight will increase.

Calories Add Up Fast

12 ounces of beer = ~150 calories
5 ounces of wine = ~100 calories
1.5-ounces of distilled spirits = ~100 calories

For example, if a man with average energy intake consumed four standard drinks of beer, this would account for 13–15% of his energy intake.

If the consumption of other foods or drinks is reduced to adjust for the extra energy intake from alcohol, over time this could lead to a deficiency of key nutrients.

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The truth is that no one needs alcohol to live. We consume alcohol to relax, socialize, and/or celebrate. Depending on your health, age, and the amount that you consume there may be some added health benefits, but the negative consequences when consumed in excess far outweigh these benefits.


Alcohol begins to affect the brain within 5 minutes of consumption, with blood alcohol concentration peaking after 30–45 minutes. It takes approximately 1 hour for the liver to clear the alcohol from one standard drink from the body.

A full stomach reduces the rate of absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. Drinking alcohol in combination with eating therefore reduces the rate at which blood alcohol content increases. Drinking coffee, having a cold shower, vomiting or exercising do not reduce blood alcohol content.

Alcohol affects every organ in the body. It is a central nervous system depressant that is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. Alcohol is metabolized in the liver by enzymes; however, the liver can only metabolize a small amount of alcohol at a time, leaving the excess alcohol to circulate throughout the body. The intensity of the effect of alcohol on the body is directly related to the amount consumed.

It is the amount of alcohol consumed that affects a person most, not the type of alcoholic drink.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate drinking is up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.

Examples of one drink include:

  • Beer: 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters)
  • Wine: 5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters)
  • Distilled spirits (80 proof): 1.5 fluid ounces (44 milliliters)


Individual reactions to alcohol vary, and are influenced by many factors; such as age, gender, race or ethnicity, physical condition (weight, fitness level, etc), amount of food consumed before drinking, how quickly the alcohol was consumed, use of drugs or prescription medicines, family history of alcohol problems.


Older people are more susceptible than others to the toxic effects of alcohol due to changes in their body composition and decreased metabolic capacity. Many older people take medications that may interact with alcohol. A combination of alcohol and medication increases the risk of falls and injury.


Alcohol affects women differently. Women, in general, have a higher risk for problems than men. When a woman drinks, the alcohol in her bloodstream typically reaches a higher level than a man’s even if both are drinking the same amount. This is because women’s bodies generally have less water than men’s bodies. Because alcohol mixes with body water, a given amount of alcohol is more concentrated in a woman’s body than in a man’s.


Women of child bearing age, who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should avoid drinking to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy and potential exposure of a developing fetus to alcohol.

Maternal alcohol consumption can harm the breastfeeding baby. Not drinking is the safest option.

Children under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking. For this age group, not drinking alcohol is especially important. Youth who use alcohol before age 15 are six times more likely to become alcohol dependent than adults who begin drinking at age 21.


For people aged 15−17 years, the safest option is to delay drinking for as long as possible.

For men under 65, it is no more than four drinks a day or 14 drinks per week.

Responsible drinking means more than just limiting yourself to a certain number of drinks. It also means not getting drunk and not letting alcohol control your life or your relationships.

Some people should not drink at all, including

  • Anyone younger than age 21.
  • Women who are or may be pregnant.
  • Individuals who are driving, planning to drive, or are participating in other activities requiring skill, coordination, and alertness.
  • Individuals taking certain prescription or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol.
  • Individuals with certain medical conditions.
  • Persons recovering from alcoholism or unable to control the amount they drink.

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What is the difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse?

Alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking that results in harm to one’s health, interpersonal relationships, or ability to work. Manifestations of alcohol abuse include the following:

  • Failure to fulfill major responsibilities at work, school, or home.
  • Drinking in dangerous situations, such as drinking while driving or operating machinery.
  • Legal problems related to alcohol, such as being arrested for drinking while driving or for physically hurting someone while drunk.
  • Continued drinking despite ongoing relationship problems that are caused or worsened by drinking.
  • Long-term alcohol abuse can turn into alcohol dependence.

Dependency on alcohol, also known as alcohol addiction and alcoholism, is a chronic disease. The signs and symptoms of alcohol dependence include

  • A strong craving for alcohol.
  • Continued use despite repeated physical, psychological, or interpersonal problems.
  • The inability to limit drinking.

Standard drinks and Drinking levels

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Moderate drinking is up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.

Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men—in about 2 hours. Binge drinking is also defined as drinking 5 or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion on at least 1 day in the past 30 days.

Heavy drinking is defined as drinking 5 or more drinks on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days.


What’s a Standard Drink

In the United States, a standard drink is any drink that contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol (about 0.6 fluid ounces or 1.2 tablespoons). Below are U.S. standard drink equivalents. These are approximate, since different brands and types of beverages vary in their actual alcohol content.

For beer, the approximate number of standard drinks in

  • 12 oz. = 1
  • 22 oz. = 2
  • 16 oz. = 1.3
  • 40 oz. = 3.3

For malt liquor, the approximate number of standard drinks in

  • 12 oz. = 1.5
  • 22 oz. = 2.5
  • 16 oz. = 2
  • 40 oz. = 4.5

For table wine, the approximate number of standard drinks in

  • a standard 750-mL (25-oz.) bottle = 5

For 80-proof spirits, or “hard liquor,” the approximate number of standard drinks in

  • a mixed drink = 1 or more*
  • a fifth (25 oz.) = 17
  • a pint (16 oz.) = 11
  • 1.75 L (59 oz.) = 39

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