Nutrition is an important topic for everyone and may be particularly relevant for the 61% of Johns Hopkins undergraduate students who drank alcohol in the past year, according to the 2021 Maryland College Alcohol Survey.
There are many ways in which alcohol and food intersect; here are a few of the things we think are most crucial for Hopkins students to know.
Food provides calories, or energy, which are necessary to fuel our bodies. Calories come from the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Most foods will also have additional nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, or fiber.
While alcohol sources contain calories, the calories from alcohol do not come packaged with additional nutrients that help our bodies function effectively. And because alcohol is technically a toxin, our bodies will always prioritize the breakdown of alcohol over food, delaying or decreasing the availability of nutrients. Therefore, 150 calories from alcohol does not fuel your body the same way that 150 calories of a sandwich (or any other food source) fuels your body. Alcohol is not a food replacement and should not be used as one.
Most alcohol is absorbed by the small intestine. Some is also absorbed by the mouth and stomach. By eating before drinking, the rate at which alcohol reaches the small intestine is slowed, helping to taper absorption to a pace that your body can more easily manage. This can help individuals to avoid feeling too drunk too quickly.
Consuming food when drinking alcohol increases the rate of alcohol elimination from the blood stream by 25-45%. Typically, the best options will be foods that contain a mixture of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Examples include:
Alcohol can temporarily increase serotonin levels, which can affect hunger levels and food cravings. (Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in appetite control, as well as sleep and mood.)
Additionally, alcohol lowers inhibitions, which makes it more likely that you may choose foods or portions that are significantly different from what you may choose to consume when not drinking.
Drinking water between alcoholic beverages serves a dual purpose. First, doing so gives your body time to process the alcohol that has been consumed. (See No. 5 on this list for why this choice is important.) Secondly, alcohol is a diuretic (which means it increases the rate of urination) so drinking water can also help prevent dehydration. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, dizziness, confusion, and even serious complications like urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and seizures.
Alcohol absorption occurs in the mouth, stomach, and small intestines. But alcohol is processed, or metabolized, by the liver.
While the liver can process 1-2 standard drinks fairly easily for many people, binge drinking (defined by the NIH as consuming more than 5 standard drinks for male-bodied people or 4 standard drinks for female-bodied people* in two hours) can lead to a significant build-up of free radicals from the metabolic process. Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons that will attempt to steal electrons from neighboring cells. Over time, excessive amounts of free radicals can cause considerable damage to the body.
Additionally, excessive alcohol use causes stomach and intestinal inflammation, which can result in many serious side effects, including:
6. Hopkins has resources to support you if you would like to further discuss nutrition or alcohol use.
While alcohol can certainly be enjoyed in moderation as an accompaniment to meals and enhancement to social gatherings, it is important to drink responsibly and recognize when drinking may be causing negative affects due to amount or frequency of consumption. All Johns Hopkins affiliates can take eCHECKUP TO GO for personalized feedback on how much alcohol is too much for their body and steps they can take to stick to their limit.
The Office of Student Health & Well-Being works with students, learners, and trainees one-on-one using motivational interviewing to support behavior change with alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco. Email us at email@example.com for more information.
Nutrition care is available through both primary care clinics serving the Hopkins student and trainee communities, the Student Health and Wellness Center (Homewood and Peabody) and University Health Services (BSPH, SOM, and SON).
*If you are interested in learning more about the intersection of alcohol and biological sex and gender, check out this excellent fact sheet from Cornell Wellness.