By: Michaela Ream
Canada has long had a boozy history, from the first introduction of beer by European settlers in the 1700s to the deeply problematic trading of alcohol during the fur trade, and later, home brewing and rum-running during Canada’s prohibition era. When raising a toast today, Canadians continue to love their liquor: 80 per cent of Canadian adults drink.
In the early 20th century, alcohol was connected to increased cancer risk and declared a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning there was conclusive evidence of it causing cancer. Fast-forward to 2011 and the National Alcohol Strategy Advisory Committee guidelines, called Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines, reported that 15 drinks per week for men and 10 for women were considered a low health risk when it came to developing diseases like cancer, as well as high blood pressure and other health issues.
“The body breaks down alcohol into a toxic chemical that can damage DNA and cells, causing the cells to grow and multiply out of control, which can create a cancerous tumour,” says Andrea Holwegner, founder and CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. in Calgary.
For those living with cancer or undergoing treatment, limiting or abstaining from alcohol is even more relevant, as alcohol can worsen the side effects of chemotherapy and increase the risk of developing other health problems, such as high blood pressure or liver damage.
Holwegner also notes that alcohol can disrupt sleep, reduce the effectiveness of insulin for individuals with diabetes, cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate, negatively influence digestive health and exacerbate symptoms for people struggling with mental health. With seven calories per gram of alcohol, it can also lead to excess calorie intake and potential weight gain.
However, despite the effects of alcohol and the plethora of warnings about consuming in excess, it has remained a dominant part of daily life. In fact, 76.5 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older reported drinking in 2019, according to Statistics Canada, and, between 2020 and 2021, the 3,180.1 million litres of alcohol sold could have filled 1,272 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
In 2020, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) began an intensive study examining the relationship between alcohol and related mortality, disease risk, social harms and cancer risks in order to update the 2011 guidelines. In January 2023, the result of that study was released: no amount of alcohol is good for your health. The new guidelines suggest both men and women limit alcohol whenever possible, as health risks, including the risk of cancer, increase when individuals consume more than two alcoholic drinks per week.
Holwegner says the CCSA is simply sharing with Canadians that alcohol use comes with a risk. It’s based on research that shouldn’t be ignored and that should be used as a tool to help guide drinking decisions, whether by limiting the amount consumed or engaging in the increasingly popular “teetotalism,” or full alcohol abstinence.
“For other generations, [like Gen Z,] the trending non-alcoholic drinking scene is growing,” says Holwegner. “We’re seeing fancier mocktail offerings, alcohol-free beers and spirits with added herbs to enjoy around friends and family, without the risks.”
As a registered dietitian, Holwegner hopes to see more people limit their alcohol consumption; however, she also strives to empower people to create a healthy and joyous relationship with food and their body by eating “healthfully and soulfully.”
“Eating healthfully is about getting enough veggies and other health-promoting foods for [physical and] mental health, energy and productivity,” explains Holwegner. “Eating soulfully means saving room to enjoy foods chosen more specifically for taste and social fun.”
For some, that may mean enjoying chocolate or potato chips, and, for others, it may mean an alcoholic drink, either alone or during social settings with friends. With increasing options for equally delicious alcohol-free options, it’s still possible to keep the fun going while staying safe and healthy.
“There are no bad foods, only overall bad diets,” says Holwegner, adding that everything in moderation is key.
Three Alberta-made non-alcoholic beverages
Try these delicious alcohol-free options that taste just as good as the real deal:
Craft Kombucha by MOBU Kombucha
Made in: Edmonton
Try this: Haskap Kombucha
Learn more: mobukombucha.ca
Botanical Cocktails by Wild Folk
Made in: Calgary
Try this: Bee’s Knees
Learn more: drinkwildfolk.com
CR*FT Non-Alcoholic Beer by Village Brewery
Made in: Calgary
Try this: CR*FT Stout
Learn more: shop.villagebrewery.com