Wine, beer, cocktails, spirits, in short: alcoholic beverages. In their latest directive, the Dutch Health Council states that it is better not to drink any alcohol at all. This guideline has been criticised, in particular by interest groups related to the alcohol industry, for example Stiva, an association that strives to promote sensible alcohol consumption. The critics also point out that moderate use of alcohol could even be beneficial to one’s health. Since then, it has been conclusively established that these claims are based on wrongly executed and misinterpreted research.
To put if briefly, the idea that drinking a little bit of alcohol instead of no alcohol at all is better, is a result of measuring all non-drinkers by the same standards in studies from the 1980s. In other words, they studied a mix of genuine non-drinkers: people who never touched alcohol because they didn’t like it, for religious reasons, by conviction, or because they did not handle it well, but the study also included people who did not drink (anymore) due to medical reasons. These people already had deteriorating health and took medication that did not go well with alcohol, or they were heavy ex-drinkers who already had serious health problems. The entire group of non-drinkers appeared to be less healthy due to this last category. If the error in this category is corrected and other factors, such as education and income, are included, the beneficial effect of one or two drinks a day is totally gone.
Professor René Kahn, Professor of Psychiatry and formerly a member of the Health Council, sketches an accurate picture of the negative effects of alcohol in his book Op je gezondheid? (To Your Health?). The not so cheerful list demonstrates that alcohol has a great impact on early mortality due to cardiovascular diseases, liver problems and fatal accidents. Furthermore, drinking alcohol has a negative effect on cancer. Esophageal cancer, cancer of the stomach, pancreas, prostate and the large and small intestines. In women, one in ten cases of cancer can be attributed to alcohol.
Apart from this, there is one other important fact: no matter what you think, beverages containing alcohol also contain many calories. A few examples:
A glass of red wine of 150ml will add 123 kcal. Let’s say that you drink two glasses per day, then you ingest 246 kcal. Which is about ten percent of the daily energy requirement of an adult male who does not want to lose weight.
A can of beer yields 132 kcal. The stronger beers that are becoming ever more popular, will add 200-250 kcal per bottle. Cocktails can even contain more than 300 kcal per drink.
Also, we should not forget the category ‘common sense in practice’. Many among us will surely recognize the fact that it isn’t always easy to consume alcohol in moderation. You intend to stick to one drink only, but often proceed to a second and third glass. Sometimes, the glasses of wine even contain more than the standard 150ml. With a nice glass of wine, you also like to eat some kind of snack, which is not necessarily a piece of raw carrot or cauliflower. More often than not, you eat cheese, nuts or a piece of sausage. To make it worse, after an evening of heavy drinking, many people feel the need to eat something fatty, such as a croquette, a meatball, a chili dog, French fries or other deep-fried snacks.
It might also sound familiar that counting your drinks and keeping track of what you eat becomes substantially less accurate after you have had a few glasses.
All of the above is to do with the functions and characteristics of the prefrontal cortex and the hypothalamus. The functions of the prefrontal cortex rapidly decline when alcohol is involved. In its sober state, the cortex excels in carrying out difficult tasks, in focusing and logical reasoning, but the quality of these functions decreases with every glass. Pronouncing complicated sentences, carrying out intricate motor acts (such as unlocking your front door), but also making sensible decisions; they all deteriorate. This also substantially weakens the strength with which you can subdue the hypothalamus, the hamster. The hamster itself is hardly affected by alcohol. The hypothalamus is an ancient area, and its tasks are, although of vital importance, a lot ‘simpler’, as opposed to the extremely complicated tasks of the prefrontal cortex. The more complicated the function, the bigger the chance that it is disrupted by something, such as alcohol. This gives the simple, ancient and basic functions of the hypothalamus a greater opportunity to grab their chance, for example, by eating fatty snacks. Although another ancient and basic function of the hypothalamus, that of procreation, may also get the upper hand after a few drinks.
We would like to mention another, additional risk to people who have assigned too big a part in their lives to alcohol. The people who find it hard to do without. They are at risk of calculating their calories during the day in order to be able to have a few drinks at the end of the day. They will eat less and maybe not ingest sufficient high-quality food stuffs, just to be able to drink their wine in the evenings. Apart from the fact that your nutrition will probably be of poorer quality, there is a chance that you will be less accurate in keeping track of what you actually eat and drink, and will probably underestimate this.
Besides the caloric effect, alcohol has a negative influence on the quality and quantity of your sleep. After having had a drink, you will often fall asleep faster, but you will also wake up sooner, especially in the second half of the night. In other words, you sleep fewer hours and not so sound. This last effect also influences the biological clock in the hypothalamus in a negative way. The positive thing about quitting alcohol is that your sleep becomes deeper again, and your biorhythm improves. Which in itself is also good for losing weight.
Well, if you look at it in terms of weight loss and health in a general sense, the conclusion is that the less alcohol you consume, the better. And absolute abstinence being the most optimal option.