What the drinks do to your diet


Yes, they lurk from all sides: Whether you attend this Friday’s after work gathering, the regular Saturday birthday party, or simply a night out with your besties quite likely leads from one drink to another. Well-known story, and it’s happening right now, many times at many places around this globe. Some may see a glass of red a vital accessory to have with their dinner, for others the drink itself is pure pleasure. For whatever reason you might choose the booze and whether consumed with responsibility or ending up in binge drinking – alcohol affects our body. See, I really don’t want to put my foot into discussing the health issues related to alcohol abuse coming from accepting the drug as a part of social life (it’s probably an endless list) You certainly don’t need to look back on a history with moments dancing on a table half-naked between strangers to understand alcohol is a drug and consumption should be kept to the exceptional occasion. However, I do neither intend to bring up potential preventive effects of alcohol such as the so called French paradox, communicating that moderate consumption of red wine is associated with decreased risk for coronary heart disease.

Finally, after outlining what I do not want to talk about I move on to the things and drinks I actually wanted to share with you this time: You haven’t cut out alcohol completely from your diet but want to enjoy the occasional drink or two and still balance this pleasure with a healthy lifestyle. We are back on track to finding moderation, a term I’m sure you noticed before on this blog. And here’s the deal: Moderate drinking can stand in line with a sustainable healthy diet if you simply make yourself aware of what we do to our bodies when we indulge a drink. I almost want to call it mindful drinking – creating a healthier relationship to alcohol with minimum regret.

Calories may be the least to worry about.

It’s easy to underestimate the number of calories taken in by just one drink. Alcohol is among fat, carbohydrates and protein a carrier of energy (staying formal here, not wanting to scare you off at this stage with the terrible “c-word”… You know, calories). Mixed drinks and cocktails even contain extra sugar making one unit as calorie dense as an entire snack or meal. Well, it basically runs directly through into your bloodstream, sugar and alcohol are absorbed pretty damn efficiently. Without feeding your body fibre, vitamins, minerals and co. we talk about empty calories – energy with zero nutritional value (assuming you don’t regularly go for the Strawberry Daiquiri). It won’t make you feel full nor will it contribute to meeting your daily nutritional requirements except for adding up on your “calorie account”.

And this is not the whole story. Ever noticed yourself stopping by the kebab after a crazy night out? Well, this is no coincidence. Alcohol and the sugar contained in alcoholic drinks make your blood sugar levels a roller coaster. Increasing the levels immediately at the time of intake over the entire night blood levels are prone to drop rapidly since the simple sugar is broken down quickly. This explains a craving for calorie dense food after a few hours, you feel hungry. Depending on the amount of alcohol still left in your blood you may even notice this effect the day after.

And I have one more for you. Alcohol slows down your fat metabolism. Our bodies are fascinatingly effective; they tend to use whatever we feed it. In our liver alcohol is rapidly converted into acetate which is also an intermediate product coming from the breakdown of carbohydrates and fat. However, since acetate from alcohol involves relatively little metabolic work compared to the other pathways it is used preferentially. It has been shown that burning of fat for energy can be significantly decreased for several hours after drinking.

  • Choose wisely. As mentioned in one of my earlier articles you may prefer drinks that are low in both alcohol and sugar. This for example could be beer and red wine instead for long drinks or sweet ciders which contain extra sugar.
  • Combine with food. Having a drink with your dinner is probably the best option. The more complex carbs and protein will keep your blood sugar levels constant over more time and will help you both decrease the craving for a midnight snack and decrease risk for headache.
  • Plan ahead. In the end of the day, a positive energy balance means excess of calories will lead to weight gain. So if you know you will be going out, try to target the highest proportion of your daily energy intake towards the end of the day. Choose a lot of fibre and protein rich food, low in fat and sugar.
  • Last but not least… Enjoy your drink but think of it as exceptional indulgence. Actually, I’m not at all a fan of “bottoms up”. I even do indulge my Jägermeister on ice! (latest here you might wonder ‘Is she really German??’) However, you have to think of alcohol like high caloric sweets.

Take it easy on lifting.

You want to spend your weekends in both the pub and the gym? Probably not the best idea. The breakdown of alcohol causes oxidative stress to your body. Even if you don’t find yourself with a crushing headache or worse you can be sure that your body is still working on the 2+ drinks you had the night before. Oxidative stress means an increase of free radicals that damages your cells and lowers immunity which makes you more prone to injuries and infections. How long alcohol can affect your workout and its efficiency is still unclear and depends on many other factors such as gender, age, general fitness and obviously the amount of alcohol your body has to cope with. However, some studies propose that a night out drinking might kick you really hard and hurt your gains for up to 3 days. Research suggests there are several mechanisms involved which affect the protein synthesis and anabolic hormones.

  • Drink plenty of water before / during / after. Alcohol dehydrates your body as it interferes with the hormone that regulates urination. We cannot stop this mechanism but compensate it by drinking water and adding electrolytes (salt and minerals) to our body… such as from fruits and veggies or rehydration fluid available in the pharmacy.
  • Antioxidants refill. Some people call it detox. Antioxidants (such as vitamin A, C and E) inhibit the oxidation of molecules by terminating the reactivity of free radicals… they literally catch them and make them impotent. Eating large amounts of fruits after your night out won’t enhance this effect but the antioxidants stored in your liver will be depleted. You may want to make sure to keep your daily recommendation of “5 a day” to keep antioxidant levels up.
  • Rather make it a rest day. Considering the effects mentioned above you would rather wait with heavy lifting and go for some lighter exercise which won’t put more pressure on your body. Maybe have a long walk instead!

So keep an eye on your drinking habits if you want it to interfere as little as possible with your diet and workout goals. A glass of wine or beer with your food is ok but try to make drinking the exception and stay sober for most of the days. And apart from body weight and muscle gains – your liver will thank you big times.

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