Cheers! A Healthy Approach to Drinking Responsibly
Some of the more frequently asked questions I receive concern alcohol and its effect on body fat reduction. Can I get lean while drinking, and if so, how much is too much? What alcoholic beverage is the best for those trying to get leaner? First, let’s look at what alcohol is actually made of from a chemistry point of view, then how it affects our nutritional biochemistry. Now, I realize I just used two words, chemistry and biochemistry, that sent most of you into a lengthy daydream in high school and college, but bear with me as I attempt to explore the beauty of chemistry (Walter White would be proud, a “Breaking Bad” reference). If you don’t get this reference, then you don’t watch “Breaking Bad,” which means you have zero appreciation for one of the better TV shows ever made. So, there.
For the purposes of this treatise, we will concern ourselves with ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol, grain alcohol, drinking alcohol, or booze. Ethyl alcohol is created when a sugar is fermented with yeast, one of the oldest biotechnologies known to man. The chemical nomenclature is CH3CH2OH. OK, enough of that. Now, a brief history lesson.
The use of alcohol as an intoxicating agent predates recorded human history. The dried residue of alcohol found on 9000 year old pottery from what is now China suggests alcohol use by the inhabitants of the region. Wine and its intoxicating effects are interspersed throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament. During the ninth century, a Persian polymath named Razi is credited as the first to scientifically identify ethanol. The alchemists of the School of Salerno in the twelfth century produced the first recorded distillation of alcohol from wine (wouldn’t you know, at a college!). Enough history, we get the picture. Humans like their booze.
Let’s look at how alcohol affects our biochemistry and the process of getting leaner. Alcohol can be converted to fat, but only a relatively small percentage, less than 5% of the calories. The remaining alcohol is converted to acetaldehyde, then to acetate, both occurring in the liver; therefore, conversion to fat is not how alcohol becomes problematic while dieting. The presence of alcohol greatly diminishes your body’s metabolism (the rate at which you burn calories) of fat and carbohydrate. When you have a drink or two with a meal, the fat and carbs in that meal will not be burned until you have metabolized the alcohol, which may take several hours! If this meal is dinner, you may be in bed asleep by the time this occurs. Your metabolism slows considerably during sleep, further impeding your ability to burn the fat and carbs you ate at dinner, and could potentially lead to increased body fat storage.
One of my clients stated that this must mean she should drink earlier in the day, so maybe she could possibly burn those unused calories. “No, madam, please do not leave this office and tell the world your fitness trainer/nutritionist advised you to have a Cosmo for breakfast, which is not what I am advising.” Rather, if you are going to consume alcohol as the majority of my clients, and I do, one should have a low fat, low carb dinner. This is a good idea for anyone, but particularly for those trying to reduce body fat and still wish to drink.
What’s in a Drink?
A comparison of several common alcoholic beverages is now in order. There is a vast range in the caloric content, and some misconceptions are common. We have all heard the term “beer-belly”, but beer in unto itself is really not that fattening. Now if you pound down 10 or more “brewskies” a night, yes, you may never view the earth directly below your feet. At 100-150 calories each, that additional 1000-1500 calories will add up on anyone. But beer has virtually no fat, 2-5 grams (8-20 calories) of carbs from grain, and no sugar. A couple of light beers with the proper dinner and one can get leaner. A six-pack coupled with pizza and/or cheeseburgers, not so much. (Read my previous article about fast food: the good, the bad and the ugly).
One ounce of liquor, 5-6 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, all have approximately the same alcohol.
1 oz. vodka: ~65 cal.
12 oz. light beer: ~100 cal.
6 oz. wine: ~150 cal.
2 bourbon & cokes: ~460 cal. (2 oz. bourbon, 6 oz. coke each)
2 pina coladas: ~1400 big fat calories
3 margaritas from Milagros: 2400 cal. (and I can’t feel my face)
If you keep your alcohol intake under 300 calories, and under 200 would be even better, you should be able to get leaner if the rest of your diet is in order. This means proper calorie load for the day and correct proportions of fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Cheers!