Alcohol. This is probably the most hot-button, hard-line item there is when it comes to changing your diet. It’s the thing people seem to be the least willing to give up, but going dry for a stretch may be one of the most impactful things you can do for your health.
Marketers got real clever when it comes to our desire to stay fit while continuing to drink by offering “low calorie,” “low carb,” and “skinny” options. The truth is it’s not the carbs or calories that are the root of the booze problem. It’s the alcohol. Simply, the alcohol.
Let me explain why.
Alcohol Gets in the Way of Fat Loss
If fat loss is your goal, giving up the booze is a non-negotiable. Yes, you can still lose fat while enjoying the occasional cocktail, but it will be a slower path. When it comes to booze and fat-loss, you can’t have your beer and drink it, too.
This is because drinking essentially shuts off the pathway your body uses to access and burn stored fat. The reason being: your liver. Your liver has hundreds of jobs, one of them being supporting your metabolism. But, when there is alcohol in your system, your liver’s number-one job becomes to remove that alcohol and detoxify your body.
Most of the alcohol you consume gets processed by your liver, and one ounce of alcohol takes about an hour to be processed (on average). This means any sort of fat burning is put on hold while your liver puts out this toxin-entry fire that has been created. So, if you go out and have four ounces, that’s a minimum of four hours that your fat burning abilities are on hold (just for starters).
The time your liver needs for processing can be extended even longer depending on your weight, age, the strength and type of alcohol, the speed of consumption, and what sorts of foods you’ve been eating. Meaning, if you’re already heavy, not a youngster, and eating junk food, you’re setting your liver up for a long processing time when it comes to the alcohol you consume.
But that’s not where it ends — you’re not free and clear after that one-plus hour per drink. Your buzz may have ended, but your body still has more work to do to detox from your happy hour indulgence.
When your liver breaks down alcohol, it metabolizes it into acetaldehyde, which is highly toxic and a known carcinogen. Then, that substance is broken down into another byproduct known as acetate. The body starts using this acetate as its fuel source (see: How Alcohol Makes You Fat by Ben Greenfield), ignoring the fats, proteins, and carbs you’re getting from food. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, those fats, proteins, and carbs get stored as excess body fat. This is why many people still find themselves stuck when trying to lose body fat and “only drinking twice a week.”
Alcohol Triggers Sugar Cravings
Alcohol is comprised of sugar and carbohydrate with little to no nutrition. It tends to not only spark cravings for less-than-ideal foods, but can ignite a cycle of cravings following the sugar crash of a hangover.
The more you consume sugars, the more you crave them. The more you consume empty sugars (like alcohol) the more your body wants the nutrition it expected to get from all of those calories so it ups the crave-o-meter. (Remember, calories are supposed to come with things like proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.) That’s why we tend to get super hungry when we drink. That, plus lowered inhibition and poor decision making often leads to some poor food choices.
Alcohol Is Bad News for Your Immune Health
Another function of the liver is to support your immune system, and it cannot do so effectively while being hammered by alcohol. Alcohol also causes disturbances to your gut walls. This is especially true for beer, as gluten-containing barley is the primary ingredient. The proteins in gluten can cause damage to the villi that line your intestine, which are meant to pull the nutrients out of what we eat into the bloodstream. Your gut is where the healthy bacteria live that help your immune system stay strong. So, we want to keep that ecosystem thriving and working properly.
All this, plus what laying off the bottle does for your skin, performance, overall digestion, and general productivity levels. Reconsidering happy hour yet? But don’t despair, I have some tips for you…
How to Enjoy Alcohol in a Healthier Way
Alcohol is a part of most adult’s social lives. That makes cutting alcohol the toughest part of getting healthy for many people. While I do recommend abstaining for a couple of weeks to start, after that it’s fine to have the occasional cocktail. Alcohol can be incorporated as a part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s just a matter of making smarter choices when you do partake.
- Start with 14 to 21 days of sobriety before the reintroduction of “friendly alcohols.”
- Your least offensive options will be low-sugar, gluten-free spirits: tequila, many rums, gins, and vodkas. Mixed with lemon, lime, or grapefruit juice, club soda, or even coconut water, these make for a tasty cocktail that won’t send you off the rails.
- When you are going to indulge in a beverage, don’t go for the cheapest stuff. Buy better quality vodkas, gins, and rums, and always opt for 100% agave tequila.
- When it comes to wine – the drier the better. Common sense tells us the sweeter the wine, the more sugar it contains. Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Pinot Noir are all lower sugar/drier options. Even a brut or extra brut sparkling wine works (contrary to popular belief).
- If you are going to have beer, go for a quality craft beer (these typically have better ingredients, generally no fillers, and are generally higher quality) or something gluten-free.
- Ciders are a great beer alternative, and there are a ton of interesting ones on the market. These can be high in sugar, though, so be careful not to overdo it.
- Make sure to drink ample amounts of water to stay as hydrated as possible when you do go out for a few drinks. Have a glass of water between every alcoholic beverage.
So there’s your crash course in booze. Short and sweet, and maybe not exactly what you wanted to hear. The truth is there’s no perfect answer and everybody’s tolerance level is different. You don’t have to give alcohol up forever, but do use common sense and good judgment when comparing the pros and the cons of enjoying a drink or two.
In his book The Paleo Solution, Robb Wolf said, “Drink to the degree that it doesn’t negatively affect the way you look, feel, or perform.” That’s pretty solid advice, and you need to decide for yourself where that line is.