Skip to main content

During busy, social times, it’s easy for our good habits to take a back seat. If you have a full social calendar ahead, take the opportunity to reflect on healthy habits, especially the approach to drinking.

What exactly is alcohol?

Alcohol is an energy source. In drinks, we call it ‘ethanol’. Ethanol is produced by fermenting the sugars in starch or sugar-based crops such as grains, fruits and vegetables. This is how we get beer from barley, wine from grapes and vodka from potatoes. When we compare this energy source to our three major nutrients for energy – carbohydrates, proteins and fats – alcohol is a poor source of energy and very lacking in nutrients.

How does my body process alcohol?

Alcohol affects the body straight away and has the capacity to affect everyone. We may start to feel more relaxed and confident as our inhibitions reduce, our speech can slur, and we may have difficulty walking.

What’s even more interesting is the unique metabolic pathway of alcohol. Unlike other macronutrients, alcohol is absorbed directly into the blood stream by diffusion. As a result, alcohol gets priority digestion over the other macronutrients. The outcome of this process is that alcohol is either used for energy or stored as fat. Alcohol also provides seven calories per gram (almost twice the amount of energy we get from one gram of carbohydrate). In a nutshell – alcohol is energy dense, nutrient poor and prevents the body from properly absorbing, digesting and using other nutrients.

How does alcohol affect the heart?

Drinking too much alcohol can raise the levels of some fats in the blood (triglycerides), reduce our HDL “good” cholesterol and increase our blood pressure. As alcohol is very energy dense, we’re likely to increase our caloric intake. Doing this continuously may lead to weight gain, which is well known to increase blood pressure and heighten our risk of developing type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Does alcohol increase heart rate?

Alcohol can increase heart rate temporarily, and repeated episodes of excessively high heart rate can lead to more serious cardiac conditions like heart failure and irregular heartbeat.

In some cases, drinking large amounts all at once can slow the heart rate to a dangerously low level.

Does alcohol increase blood pressure?

Alcohol can increase blood pressure, and there is a clear link between having high blood pressure and regularly drinking too much alcohol. High blood pressure in the long term puts strain on the heart muscle and can increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke.

Is red wine good for the heart?

You may have heard that drinking red wine is good for your heart. This relates to what is known as the “French Paradox”. Observational research in the 1980s found that a high percentage of French people had very low rates of coronary heart disease despite having a diet that included lots of saturated fat. This research argued that having low to moderate amounts of red wine may even be protective against heart disease. However, there is also vast evidence to support that consuming alcohol in high amounts leads to poor health outcomes. The issue here is that we’re often unaware of what a moderate amount of alcohol is, or what exceeds this amount.

Tips to help manage alcohol and heart disease

How much alcohol is ok?

Two or more drinks on any one occasion is considered exceeding a moderate intake of alcohol. By consuming two cans of full-strength beer or two average-sized glasses of red wine, we’re already clocking up approximately three standard drinks.

It’s recommended that adults drink no more than:

  • two standard drinks a day for women and no more than 10 standard drinks a week
  • three standard drinks a day for men and no more than 15 standard drinks a week

and at least two alcohol-free days every week.1

This advice is based on standard drinks. A standard drink provides 10g alcohol and is equal to:

  • 100ml wine
  • 285ml full strength beer
  • 375ml mid strength beer
  • 60ml port or sherry
  • 30ml spirits.

What about lower carb beer?

Low carb beers are not low alcohol. They have a lower number of calories than full strength beers, but if we were to compare a soft drink or glass of juice to alcohol, alcohol is actually quite low in carbohydrates.

Rather than worrying about the carbohydrate content of beer, think of your alcohol intake from a health perspective – which, put simply, means it's always best to have less.

Drinking habits to practice

  • Choose one alcoholic beverage, then one glass of water and repeat this process.
  • Rather than constantly topping up your drink, completely finish it before considering a refill. This will help you keep track of your intake.
  • Where possible, select a light beer or a low alcohol wine such as a wine spritzer.
  • Keep a jug of water in sight, whether that be on the kitchen bench, dining table or outside near the BBQ. Wherever you are, make water the easy drink of choice.

Mocktail suggestions

If you want to avoid alcohol but still feel festive, water can be made more interesting by adding herbs, spices, vegetable slices or fruit pieces. You can choose plain, soda or mineral water to be the base of your mocktail. Why not try the following combinations?

  • Fresh mint with cucumber and ice cubes
  • Frozen berries with fresh mint and limes wedges
  • Apple slices with cinnamon spice and ice
  • Fresh ginger with frozen raspberries and pomegranate


  1. NZ Ministry of Health; Alcohol.

Header image: Unsplash

About the author

The Healthy Eating Hub

This article was written by an Accredited Practicing Dietitian from The Healthy Eating Hub. The Healthy Eating Hub is a team of university-qualified nutritionists and dietitians who are passionate about helping people develop long term healthy eating habits through offering evidence-based and practical nutrition advice that people can put into practice straight away.


Every donation to the Heart Research Institute is an investment into the lives of millions.

Help us to make a long-lasting difference by donating now.

Other ways you can help