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Article Summary

Healthy Eating Habits and Staying Clean

Ever correlate eating habits with alcohol consumption? No? Well, most people probably don't. If you didn't correlate these two seemingly different variables, then consider a study that was conducted by the National Institute of Health in 2006. Researchers found that there was a positive correlation between poor eating habits and an increase in alcohol consumption. Likewise, there was a positive correlation between a positive eating habits and a decrease in alcohol consumption (positive correlation implies a strong relationship between two variables. i.e. when one variable rises, the other one does as well). To be more specific, low alcohol consumption meant small amounts of alcohol, it did not necessarily refer to the frequency in which alcoholic beverages were drunk. The importance of this study is two fold. Poor eating habits may be a predictor for possible alcoholic leanings and this is a good indicator for alcohol rehabilitation.

Are There Nutritional Behaviors Specific to Alcohol Consumption?

Want beer? Well, one must have a snack to accompany the drink right? The natural choice- pizza. This combo is common to most Americans. Every once in a while, this meal choice is acceptable, however, pizza and beer may lead to more issues than one might think. Alcohol tends to be a calorie laden beverage. Unfortunately, these calories are not ones that can effectively be used by the body. There is also a positive correlation between an increase in carbohydrate consumption and a decrease in protein intake. The end result is weight gain and a nutritional deficit. It is unclear as to why individuals consuming alcohol crave carbohydrates, but studies show that these are the foods leaned towards. In fact, individuals with higher alcohol consumption tended to have a higher calorie diet then individuals with less of a tendency to drink.

So What Does Alcohol Do To The Body?

There are approximately nine thousand calories per gram in alcoholic beverages. None of these calories, as noted above, provide the proper nutrients for the body. (Necessary nutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, fat, vitamins, and minerals- all of which should be consumed in the proper quantities.) The body however, may think that its needs have been met as it is not identifying the types of calories consumed. What results is a deficiency of the necessary nutrients for the body to function properly. When large amounts of alcohol are consumed, the body senses that its caloric needs have been met. This produces a decreased demand for other foods which can result in a malnutritive state.

The gastrointestinal system is also affected by alcohol and is one of the reasons that poor nutrition can occur. To begin, alcohol is an irritant to the GI system and can cause inflammation and even ulceration to the lining of the intestines and the stomach. The result of this is poor absorption of nutrients and in plain English, an upset stomach. In addition, alcohol consumption also interferes with storage and metabolism of necessary components for survival. An example of this is mal absorption of vitamin B12 which, when not present, can lead to pernicious anemia. What does this mean? B12 is not absorbed when the intrinsic factor is not present and this is not secreted when the GI tract is irritated. Pernicious anemia results in a decrease in red blood cells which manifests itself in pallor and fatigue. The repercussions of such a disorder however, are more than can be observed with the naked eye.

In addition to the malnutrition issues that drinking itself can cause, alcoholics run into the possibility of other problems like heart disease. It is widely known, that alcohol is correlated with liver damage. What most people don't realize however is that high blood triglycerides present occur because the liver is over producing them due to alcohol use. Long term use of alcohol can also lead to kidney damage.

There are many other effects of alcohol usage which include but are not limited to the following: birth defects, brain damage, and a link between drinking and breast cancer.

Long Term Recovery and Nutritional Education

When information like the above is gathered, it's difficult to decipher which came first, the chicken or the egg. Meaning, do alcoholics have awful eating habits and therefore drink or does the drinking cause the improper eating. It's hard to tell. Having said that, one thing is certain. As with any type of addiction, alcoholics need to make a behavioral change. Long term recovery from alcohol use includes in this behavioral change, better eating habits both to fix the damage that has been done and to promote a long term withdrawal from alcohol use.

One study analyzed the differences between substance abuse centers that provided nutritional services to those that did not. The results of the study suggest that there are more positive outcomes in those centers where nutrition services are offered. In fact, the ASI (Addiction Severity Index) utilized indicated that there were better outcomes in three prominent areas: psychiatric, medical and family/social indexes. The researchers in this study also found that centers that provided nutritional counseling also provided an abundance of other services (counseling, integrative therapies such as acupuncture ect.) which assisted in a well rounded recovery. In fact, the researchers also point out that addiction is much like other chronic illness such as heart disease and cancer and thus requires the same kinds of all encompassing treatments.

Perhaps that is the important thing to remember when considering substance abuse treatment. Substance abuse recovery includes, of course, abstaining from alcohol but is also just a behavioral change. This change affects with whom someone interacts with, how they carry themselves, what activities they engage in and of course their diet as well. A program that recognizes the importance of all these variables, as the above research suggests, should promote long term abstinence, not only from the pork rinds that go so well with the football game on TV, but also the beer can that accompanies it.

Rachel Hayon, MPH, RN


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Study links diet quality with alcohol drinking patterns. Published online 13 February 2006. Accessed http://www.niaaa.nih.gov. Retrieved March 30th, 2008

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