Diseases & Conditions


Overview & Description

Alcohol is a class of chemical compounds containing hydroxyl, also called oxygen-hydrogen, groups.


Each person's body tolerates alcohol in its own way. What is moderate intake for one person may be too much for someone else. So it is hard to give advice on how much alcohol is safe to drink. Each person needs to know how much alcohol he or she can tolerate. The US Department of Health and Human Services defines moderate drinking as:

  • no more than 2 drinks per day for an average healthy man
  • no more than 1 drink per day for an average healthy woman
  • In small doses, alcohol may have some benefits. Small amounts of wine may help protect against heart disease, especially coronary artery disease. Experts aren't sure why, although there are many theories. They believe that phytochemicals, which are plant chemicals in wine, may protect the heart and its blood vessels. Some studies have tested how well alcohol raises HDL cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is the so-called good cholesterol. Other studies have looked at the blood-thinning properties of alcohol.

    Despite these benefits, alcohol has a more harmful effect when it comes to cancer. In fact, heavy drinking is linked with a number of cancers. In women, even moderate drinking is linked with a higher risk of breast cancer.

    Women who are pregnant should always avoid alcohol. Drinking during pregnancy increases the chance that the baby will have a low birth weight and fetal alcohol syndrome, which is also known as FAS. FAS results in poor growth, delays in development, and altered facial structure.

    People have enjoyed wine, beer, and other fermented drinks for more than 5,000 years. Many people like alcohol because it can improve mood, sensation, and behavior. And most people use alcohol in moderation. However, about 1 in 9 who drinks will abuse alcohol.

    Functions and Sources

    What food source is the nutrient found in?

    Alcohol is made by mixing yeasts with certain sugars. The source of the sugars gives alcohols their unique tastes and odors. For example, vodka is made from potatoes, and wine comes from grapes.

    Alcohol is a calorie-dense food. There are 7 calories in every gram of alcohol. In fact, it contains almost twice as many calories as carbohydrates or protein. Here is an idea how many calories are in some different types of alcohol:

  • 1 drink of beer (made from hops) = 12 ounces = 132 to 168 calories
  • 1 drink of 80-proof Scotch whiskey (made from barley) = 1.5 ounces = 98 calories
  • 1 drink of 100-proof whiskey = 1.5 ounces = 125 calories
  • 1 drink of wine (made from grapes) = 5 ounces = 85 to 145 calories, depending on proof and sweetness of the grapes
  • 1 drink of liqueur, also known as cordial = 1 ounce = 82 to 116 calories (depending on proof and any added sweeteners)
  • How does the nutrient affect the body?

    Unlike fat, protein, and carbohydrate, alcohol is not something the body needs to be healthy. In fact, in large doses, alcohol causes malnutrition. This is because it prevents nutrients from being absorbed. People who binge drink can develop an early stage of liver disease called fatty liver. If a binge drinker continues to abuse alcohol, alcoholic liver disease may develop. Cirrhosis is the most common type of liver disease in these cases. It is a chronic disease that causes liver cells to be destroyed. It can also result in loss of liver function.

    Alcohol affects the brain as well as the body. It acts as an anesthetic. This means it numbs the brain centers. First the emotion- and decision-governing centers are changed, then areas that govern muscle control. In the end, the centers that control breathing and heartbeat are affected.


    Author:Clare Armstrong, MS, RD
    Date Written:
    Editor:Crist, Gayle P., MS, BA
    Edit Date:09/30/02
    Reviewer:Kathleen A. MacNaughton, RN, BSN
    Date Reviewed:09/30/02