25% of Aussies drinking at unsafe levels

Written by Kate Battocchio, Accredited Practicing Dietitian 

A new study from La Trobe university has found that a quarter of Australians are drinking at unsafe levels – but it isn’t in the age group or locations you might think. The study, headed by Dr Sarah Callinan, from the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University found that that despite high rates of one-off binge drinking sessions among younger Australians, overall, younger people are drinking less. It is older Australians aged 35 plus who are drinking more, more often, and it is mostly being consumed at home – not at licensed premises.

The study showed that the majority of Australians do drink sensibly, but a small group (about 28 per cent of the population) account for 84 percent of the total alcohol being consumed, meaning most of the alcohol sold in Australia is being consumed above the long-term risk guidelines.

Furthermore, 63 per cent of all alcohol is being consumed at home and a further 12 per cent at other people’s homes. Researchers believe that the way we are drinking – in what is deemed to be a ‘civilised’ environment – we may tend to think we are immune to the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. Drinking at home is also cheaper, and there is nobody there to ‘cut you off’ when you have had enough.

Alcohol and Health

Alcohol-related disease and ill-health is often associated with what is commonly referred to as ‘heavy drinking’, but anyone that regularly drinks more than 2 standard drinks per day is at higher risk of longer term health conditions.

There are a significant number of alcohol-related diseases and health problems caused by excess alcohol consumption in Australia, including:

  • Cancer (bowel, breast, throat, mouth, liver)
  • Fatty liver & Liver disease
  • Cardiovascular disease & hypertension
  • Stroke and cardiac arrhythmias
  • Dependence & Mental health problems such as depression

What about red wine?

Both red and white wines contain resveratrol – a natural phenol found in grape skins. Red wine contains more resveratrol than white wine because it is fermented with the skins (white wine is not). Moderate consumption of red wine is a characteristic of the traditional Mediterranean diet which is widely accepted as one of the “healthiest” diets in the world. Wine, red wine in particular has been suggested to promote a longer lifespan, protect against certain cancers, improve mental health, reduce dementia risk, and provide benefits to the heart. However, clear evidence is lacking.

The World Health Organisation and other key groups now recommend that people should not commence or maintain drinking to achieve health benefits and that there is no merit in promoting alcohol consumption as a preventative strategy for cardiovascular disease.

The National Heart Foundation (Australia) has also formed the position that alcohol consumption not be promoted for the prevention or treatment of heart disease.

Alcohol and Diabetes

Most people with diabetes can enjoy a small amount of alcohol. However, drinking too much alcohol can negatively affect diabetes management.

How?

  • Alcohol has very little nutritional value (minimal vitamins and minerals) and has a high kilojoule count. If you consume alcohol in large amounts or frequently it can lead to weight gain.
  • Kilojule intake is increased further increased further if the mixers selected to drink with alcohol also provide calories e.g. soft drinks, juices, syrups etc.
  • Alcohol can reduce inhibitions and self-restraint and therefore drinkers tend to make poor nutritional decisions while drinking as well as post-drinking, increasing desire for unhealthy high fat, high salt, high calorie foods and takeaways.

Drinking too much alcohol can make it difficult to manage diabetes as alcohol can cause both high and low blood glucose levels. Mixed alcoholic drinks coupled with poor food choices may lead to hyperglycemia; while unmixed alcohol taken without food can cause hypoglycaemia for those on insulin or certain diabetes tablets. Furthermore, the acute effects of alcohol on mental functions make it less likely drinkers monitor their BGL while drinking due to reduced dexterity, forgetfulness and disinhibition. This, coupled with weight gain, increased triglycerides (blood fats) and blood pressure can increase the risk of diabetes-related complications including heart disease; kidney, eye and feet problems.

How much alcohol is safe?

For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury. This recommendation is currently under review and is the same for people with or without diabetes.

What is a standard drink?

A standard drink contains 10g of alcohol.

One standard drink is equal to:

  • Beer:
    • 285ml (middy) of regular beer
    • 375ml (stubbie / can) of mid-strength beer
    • 425ml (approx. schooner) of light beer
  • 100ml of wine (red / white / sparkling)
  • 30ml (1 x nip) spirits

It is really easy to lose track of how many standard drinks you have consumed when there is more than one in a typical serving e.g. a glass of wine will typically have 1.5-2 standard drinks; and cocktails may be a mix of spirits and wine in varying quantities. It is a good idea to check the number of standard drinks on the label of the bottle or can, and measure your glassware at home so that you know what one standard drink looks like or how many standard drinks are in your “typical” serving.

Tips for reducing alcohol intake at home

  • Plan your week to include alcohol free days (at least two is a good starting point if you currently drink daily).
  • Decide when and how many you are going to drink. For example, “I will have one glass of wine with dinner on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
  • Avoid buying it, or having it in the house. If it is in the house, keep it out of sight and out of mind.
  • Keep well hydrated through the day so that you are not thirsty.
  • Delay alcohol consumption for as long as possible during the day. Keep yourself busy and distracted with work / volunteering, chores, hobbies, exercise, visiting friends or family (who don’t drink!).
  • Have non-alcoholic alternatives in stock e.g. a fancy tea, or sparkling mineral water
  • Buy low-alcohol (not low carb) beer, and dilute full strength alcoholic drinks with diet / sugar free mixers.
  • Buy smaller glassware

For more information on standard drinks, alcohol and diabetes please refer to the NHMRC guidelines https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/health-topics/alcohol-guidelines and the Diabetes Australia Factsheet – Alcohol and Diabetes found here: https://diabetesnsw.com.au/useful-tools/information-sheets/

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