With the holidays just behind us and a new year to look forward to, I think it’s fitting to talk about our favorite boozy beverages. Can drinking alcohol be healthy? Are there certain foods we should eat before, during, and after alcohol consumption? Do men really have higher tolerances than women? Read below to find out.
Can alcohol be part of a healthy diet?
Yes, of course! As with all foods and beverages, alcohol can be part of a healthy diet. Some research studies have even found an association between red wine consumption and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. However, excess alcohol consumption can lead to addiction, aggressive behavior, and/or poor judgment. As with the overconsumption of any food or beverage, excessive alcohol intake can also lead to excessive energy (calorie) intake. Alcohol has virtually no proteins, vitamins, or minerals and is often referred to as ’empty calories’ because of the lack of nutrients.
It is important to monitor the amount of alcohol that we consume for personal safety and to minimize the after effects that alcohol has on our sleep, digestion, mood, and energy levels. Most of us have likely suffered through a terrible hangover that’s prevented us from doing anything besides staying in bed.
Do men really have higher tolerances than women?
In general, no matter how much is consumed, we can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol each hour. The amount of alcohol we metabolize is dependent on a variety of factors including body mass, liver size, and variations in the enzymes involved in alcohol metabolism (ADH and ALDH).
Women tend to have higher fat mass, and lower body water content, than men of the same weight. Because of the lower body water content, women who drink the same amount as men (of the same weight) will have a higher concentration of alcohol in their blood.
Short answer: for the most part, yes.
The nerdy stuff: how alcohol is metabolized in the body.
Alcohol is harmful to the body, so the body works hard to metabolize it quickly. Alcohol is metabolized via multiple pathways, most of them involving alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). Alcohol is first metabolized to acetaldehyde, a highly toxic substance that may contribute to those nasty hangovers that we all dread. Acetaldehyde is further metabolized to acetate, which can be broken down to water and carbon dioxide for easy elimination from the body.
Different variations of ADH and ALDH means that some people can metabolize alcohol to acetaldehyde, or acetaldehyde to acetate, more quickly than others. Fast ADH, or slow ALDH, can cause acetaldehyde to build up in the body, resulting in flushing, nausea, and a rapid heartbeat. For example, a variant of the ADH enzyme (ADLH2*2 allele) is common in people of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean descent, but is rare in people of European or African descent. The presence of the ADLH2*2 allele results in a nearly inactive ADH enzyme. Consequently, consumption of even a small amount of alcohol causes a large build-up of ADH, and a subsequent flushing reaction.
What should you eat before, during, and after you drink?
Never drink on an empty stomach! Far too many times, I’ve heard friends say that they’ve purposefully skipped a meal in order to get drunk faster. Not only is this an unhealthy approach to eating in general, the presence of food in the stomach will delay gastric emptying, thereby reducing the absorption of alcohol. I recommend sticking to foods that are high in protein or fat before and while drinking. When there is no food in the stomach, alcohol is quickly passed from the stomach to the duodenum (part of the small intestine) and absorbed into the blood stream, resulting in a higher blood alcohol concentration in the fasted state. Alcohol consumption can also interfere with nutrient digestion and absorption, especially during chronic consumption.
To help get over that nasty hangover, avoid Gatorade and Powerade because both are very high in sugar and may make you feel worse. Better alternatives are coconut water or Nuun Hydration Tablets to replenish any lost electrolytes. You will also want to make sure you’re drinking a lot of water while drinking and the day following.
Easy ways to cut down on calories.
Mixed drinks with juice, soda, or tonic water are high in sugar, so I recommend choosing more natural choices such as soda water with fresh lime/lemon. You can also request a drink with fresh herbs to naturally add more flavor. As a reference, the average energy content of popular alcoholic beverages is included below:
- Beer (12oz) – 150 kcal
- White wine (4oz) – 80 kcal
- Red wine (4oz) – 100 kcal
- Wine cooler (10oz) – 150 kcal
- Champagne (4oz) – 85 kcal
- Margarita (3oz) – 170 kcal
The after effects of drinking alcohol
It’s important to consider the after effects of drinking alcohol on our eating, sleeping, and exercise habits. In general, we don’t make the smartest eating choices when we’re drinking, and depending on how we feel the next day, we may reach for comfort foods over nutrient-dense options. We also don’t sleep as well after a night of drinking, which can influence eating habits, mood, and energy levels. And lastly, it’s difficult to find the motivation or energy to engage in physical activity when we have a headache, stomach ache, or feel overly tired. I know that many of us value our weekend days, so I understand how frustrating it is to lose time due to recovery!
More questions? Comments? Information to add? Leave them in the comments below 🙂
- Nutrition for Sport and Exercise, 2nd edition, Marie Dunford & J. Andrew Doyle