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When it comes to finding balance in a healthy diet, alcohol is something of a contentious issue. One the one hand, studies concerning the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption have often been favorable, and alcohol is positively associated with socializing and relaxation. On the other hand, it can lead to headaches, nausea, memory loss, and have disastrous long-terms effects on both physical and mental health. Depending on the individual and the situation, alcohol’s effects range from good to bad, to downright dangerous.

THE GOOD

Moderate alcohol consumption (1 drink a day for women, 2 for men) has been linked with a reduced risk of heart disease. There are several possible reasons for this; firstly, that small amounts of alcohol can raise levels of HDL (or “good) cholesterol, which helps remove cholesterol from arteries and body tissue. Alcohol also thins the blood, which is useful in the prevention of clot formation. Red wine in particular has been touted for its health benefits, due in large part to its high antioxidant levels. These antioxidants are thought to inhibit the mechanism that converts LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol into arterial plaque, which may reduce the risk of heart attack even further.

When it comes to alcohol though, be aware that less is more. The heart-protecting benefits of alcohol are related to moderate levels (1 or 2 drinks a day) taken at intermediate periods (not “averaging” one drink per day because you had seven drinks on Saturday night!) The benefits do not increase with higher consumption- in fact, they’re likely to do the opposite.

THE BAD

If you’ve ever had a hangover, then you’ve experienced the negative short-term effects of alcohol first hand (which I’m sure you did not enjoy!) When you start to consume more than a moderate amount of alcohol, the positive health benefits become negligible, and you begin to cause damage to your body. Aside from behavioral differences (which carry their own set of risks), immediate effects include dehydration, impaired brain function, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and depression. Even in the short-term, regular consumption of more-than-moderate amounts of alcohol can lead to weight gain, decreased libido, liver inflammation, high blood pressure, and irregular sleep patterns, none of which contribute positively to overall health.

THE UGLY

In the long-term, excessive drinking can lead to a whole host of very serious health problems. Despite what many people believe, these problems do not only present themselves in cases of chronic alcoholism. Regular, heavy consumption of alcohol is linked with an increased risk of cancer, liver cirrhosis, kidney damage, pancreatic injury, heart failure, and an increased likelihood of brain hemorrhage.

Consequently, the positive effects of alcohol are often overshadowed by the negative. Considering this, you should not choose to consume alcohol for the purpose of reducing your risk of heart disease. A healthy diet that favors plant foods, moderate exercise, and engagement in naturally stress-reducing activities are all measure you can take to achieve this, without the added risks that alcohol brings. Should you choose to include moderate amounts of alcohol in addition to these things, you may experience some health benefits, or at the very least, few negative effects. But remember, this is a delicate balance, and one that can very quickly topple in the wrong direction! If you do plan to enjoy a drink or two, make sure to keep these pointers in mind:

Eat before you drink. Having a full stomach, or “lining” your stomach, will slow the rate at which alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream. Rapid absorption can cause sudden spikes in blood alcohol content, leading to undesirable consequences such as nausea or black outs. Eat a good meal that contains carbohydrates and some healthy fats before you drink- eating will not help remove the alcohol from your blood stream once you are already intoxicated. Pastaveggie burgers and vegan tacos are all great options.

Drink plenty of water. Dehydration is a huge part of what makes hangovers so painful. Alcohol affects the kidneys’ ability to reabsorb water, leading to frequent bathroom trips, and resulting in dehydration. Hydrate properly prior to consuming alcohol, have water between alcoholic beverages, and if you have a couple of drinks close to bed time, be sure to re-hydrate before you go to sleep.

Pace yourself. Enjoy your drink slowly, alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and generally try to avoid doing anything you’d be encouraged to do at a college keg party. This will steady the rate of alcohol absorption, and help you to avoid an abrupt and unpleasant end to your evening.

Favor more natural options. Choose beer and wine over drinks made with sugary sodas, artificial sweeteners, or caffeinated energy drinks. These ‘mixers’ often contain highly processed ingredients, chemical additives, colors and preservatives. Not only are they unhealthy, they can make you feel even worse the following day. Many beers and wines also contain chemical preservatives- so stick with organic options whenever possible, or find out which of your favorite brands are preservative free (you may have to contact the company directly to find out for sure.)

Keep it animal-friendly. As well as chemical additives and preservatives, some alcoholic beverages contain animal ingredients. This includes isinglass (from fish), eggs, gelatine, and dairy products, which are mostly used in the refining process of beers and wines. Because they are used as filtration agents and not actually added directly to the drinks, they’re normally not listed as ingredients- making it very difficult to know whether or not a product is vegan. Luckily, you can refer to this beer and wine guide to find out which brands are! Cream liqueurs, such as baileys and creme de menthe, are also off the cards. But if you think avoiding dairy means missing out on your favorite festive beverages, then think again! We’ve got some delicious vegan holiday drink recipes right here.

(Please note that there are, of course, people who cannot and should not consume alcohol in any amount. Recommendations regarding “moderate” amounts of alcohol do not apply to everyone, including people with particular health problems, children, pregnant women, and those who are unable to restrict or moderate their drinking. This aim of this article is to discuss the health effects of alcohol, but there are also social, familial, financial and safety issues related to alcohol consumption, all of which should be considered when making choices about drinking.)

Image Source: Dinner Series/Flickr

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