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Blood Pressure and Alcohol: Should You or Shouldn't You?

How drinking affects your health

Those Extra Calories

Alcohol is fairly high in calories, but provides few essential nutrients.

The benefits of moderate drinking do not outweigh the risks of being overweight, says Theresa Nicklas, DrPh, a member of the dietary guidelines advisory committee. So if you have a drink, you should budget it into what the U.S. dietary guidelines call your "discretionary calories" -- the ones you have left over after you eat all the nutritious foods you need.

The problem, says Nicklas, is that most Americans are sedentary, so their calorie needs are relatively low. For example, someone on an 1,800-calorie eating plan only has 195 discretionary calories per day -- the equivalent of one 9-ounce glass of wine (and that leaves no room for sweets or other treats).

And, of course, when you drink too much alcohol, it's hard to get all the nutrients you need without taking in too many calories. Heavy drinkers who substitute alcohol calories for nutritious foods run the risk of malnutrition.

Another problem, according to National Institutes of Health researcher Rosalind Breslow, PhD, is that "liquid calories from alcohol do not satisfy hunger." She notes that drinks made with high-calorie mixers, like pina coladas and white Russians, can have as many as 400 calories apiece.

The best bet for people who want to enjoy a drink most days is to get more physical activity, Nicklas says. She points out that the benefits of regular physical activity are much greater than those of moderate drinking, and she advises everyone to strive for at least 30 minutes daily.

The Bottom Line

More research remains to be done on the relative risks and benefits of drinking alcohol.

But the bottom line is that to get any health benefits from alcohol, we must drink responsibly. That means having no more than 1-2 drinks per day, having them at mealtime and as part of an overall healthy diet, and making sure you aren't exceeding your calorie needs.

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Reviewed on July 31, 2006

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