Many people enjoy alcohol’s sedating influence and use it as part of our society’s traditions.
Here, David Robson, has put together details about alcohol and explains the main concerns, how it is processed and more
ALCOHOL SUPPLIES EMPTY CALORIES: CALORIES WITHOUT NUTRITION
Alcohol use – as a well-established part of human culture – is something that has become almost as acceptable as eating and breathing. As a social facilitator and feel good drug of choice for many, alcohol is very popular indeed, with consumption at mass levels.
However, alcohols well-documented deleterious effects – diminished performance, mental impairment, possible addiction, diabetes and liver disease to varying degrees in certain individuals – could be seen as a good reason to steer clear of it.
This being said, many people enjoy its sedating influence and it does play a vital role in many of society’s traditions and practices. One effect alcohol has, which is not widely discussed, is its impact on body composition. In its purest form, ethyl alcohol, which supplies seven calories per gram, alcohol provides energy, bumping up ones total energy balance whenever it is consumed.
Unlike macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats, alcohol supplies empty calories: calories without nutrition. To make matters worse, it is the first fuel to be used when combined with carbohydrates, fats and proteins, postponing the fat-burning process and contributing to greater fat storage. Alcohol, whenever taken in, is the first fuel to burn. While that’s going on, your body will not burn fat.
The main concerns with alcohol are as follows:
ALCOHOL SUPPLIES ALMOST TWICE AS MANY CALORIES AS PROTEIN & CARBOHYDRATES
At seven calories per gram, alcohol supplies almost twice as many as protein and carbohydrates. In fact, alcohol has only two fewer calories than fat, which has nine per gram. It must also be remembered that the calories in alcohol lack the nutrients beneficial for a healthy metabolism and will therefore hasten fat storage.
The calories found in the average alcoholic drink are quite concentrated compared to many foods, and this actually causes one to inadvertently take in many more calories than would otherwise be consumed. Alcohol is quite deceptive in that it passes through the system rapidly, often before the drinker is aware of the number of drinks they have had.
Alcoholic drinks also contain calories from other sources, which add to overall caloric intake. Certain cocktails, for example, contain fats. Wine and beer both have high carbohydrate content. Although the affects these various calorie types have on the body are different – carbohydrates release insulin, which can hasten fat storage, while fats will be stored directly in the fat cells – the overall result is added body fat.
An example of how many calories can be easily consumed can be seen with a small glass of wine: a 150ml glass of wine will typically contain 110 calories, 91 of which come from the alcohol itself (13 grams), with the remaining five grams coming from carbohydrates.
Beer contains more carbohydrates (although many of the “Lite” beers have a carb content similar to a glass of wine) and less alcohol than wine, but is seen as being more fattening, due to its higher energy content.
ALCOHOL MAKES US LOSE OUR INHIBITIONS
While drinking, people usually will not stop to consider the impact alcohol is having on their bodies; such is alcohol’s affect on loosening the inhibitions. The result of this relaxed thinking could mean more calories consumed and extra body fat gains. Those drinking might also eat more of the wrong kinds of food, without thinking of the consequences.
THOSE DRINKING MIGHT ALSO EAT MORE OF THE WRONG KINDS OF FOOD, WITHOUT THINKING OF THE CONSEQUENCES.
Alcohol tends to have an appetite stimulating effect as it provides little in the way of nutrition, leaving a craving for other foods at the time of consumption. Add this to the fact that fatty and salty foods tend to accompany most occasions featuring alcohol (as well as alcohol actually stimulating one’s appetite for these kinds of foods), and the general loosening of resolve that goes with an inebriated mindset, and you have a recipe for excess fat gain. Alcohol has also been shown to affect motivation, making a healthy diet harder to stay on while it is being used.
ALCOHOL CAN DAMAGE THE STOMACH, KIDNEYS, AND LIVER
Given alcohol is a by-product of yeast digestion; it can have an irritating effect on the lining of the stomach and gradually weaken the kidneys and liver, leading to serious health problems – even death in certain instances. Any weakening of the stomach will lessen the rate and efficiency at which food is digested, which ultimately interferes with a healthy metabolism and the weight loss process.
The liver – which processes toxins and breaks down fats for fuel – is crucial when it comes to maintaining a healthy body composition. Alcohol is at its most destructive during the liver’s detoxification process.
ALCOHOL LOWERS TESTOSTERONE
Testosterone, which has a powerful fat loss effect, is reduced whenever alcohol is consumed, thus halting its full potential as a fat burner. Also, testosterone as an anabolic hormone, contributes to gains in lean muscle mass. Lowered testosterone means fewer muscle gains, and less muscle means a lowered metabolic rate.
LOWERED TESTOSTERONE MEANS FEWER MUSCLE GAINS, AND LESS MUSCLE MEANS A LOWERED METABOLIC RATE.
A lower metabolic rate will make the job of losing fat all the more harder. This is what governs the way we use energy. Those with a higher metabolic rate will burn more calories at rest. By interfering with testosterone production, alcohol indirectly causes the body to lower its metabolic rate (and thus the rate at which it uses energy) and directly prohibits testosterone from exerting its powerful fat-burning effects.
ALCOHOL INCREASES APPETITE
Touched on briefly in point two, alcohol can increase appetite, making the combination of alcohol and a fattening meal all the more worse. A Canadian study showed that alcohol consumed before a meal increased caloric intake to a far greater extent than did a carbohydrate drink. Also, researchers from Denmark’s Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University showed that if a group of men were given a meal and allowed to eat as much as they wanted, alcohol, rather than a soft drink, would increase the amount of food consumed.
HOW IS ALCOHOL PROCESSED IN THE BODY?
AROUND 98% OF ALCOHOL THAT IS CONSUMED IS PROCESSED IN THE LIVER.
To gain an understanding of why alcohol affects us the way it does, it is important to known how it is processed in the body.
After consuming the first alcoholic drink, 25% of this alcohol is absorbed straight from the stomach into the bloodstream, with the remainder taken in through the small bowel. Alcohol is generally absorbed fairly rapidly, but its absorption can be quickened depending on several factors:
- The amount of food in the stomach (a fuller stomach slows the rate of absorption).
- Whether the drink is carbonated (champagne is absorbed more quickly than non-sparkling drinks).
- Alcohol concentration of the drink (higher alcohol drinks are absorbed faster).
Around 98% of alcohol that is consumed is processed in the liver, with the other two to ten percent being expelled through urine, breathing, or sweat. The amount of alcohol in a standard drink will take around 10 hours for the average person to process, which means the more that is consumed at any one point, the greater the rise in blood alcohol content. When the liver processes alcohol, it does so in one of two ways.
For the most part, alcohol is broken down by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH, which is contained in the liver cells). ADH then metabolizes the alcohol into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is broken down into acetate by another enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase. In the final stage, the acetate is further metabolized to where it eventually exits the body as waste products carbon dioxide and water.
The other way alcohol can be processed is a less common alternative, which uses a different set of liver enzymes. This alternative pathway, called the microsomal ethanol-oxidizing system, is used when the blood has very high levels of alcohol.
CALORIE & NUTRIENT CONTENT OF POPULAR ALCOHOLIC DRINKS
The alcohol content of our most popular beverages varies, so it is important to know exactly what percentage of alcohol is in any given drink if one is wanting to limit all the empty calories. The following percentages are usually contained in each standard drink -five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof (40% alcohol) distilled liquor.
- Beer: 5% alcohol
- Wine: 12% alcohol
- 100 proof liquor: 50% alcohol
- 80 proof liquor: 40% alcohol
The caloric content and nutrient breakdown of several popular alcohol choices follows.
WHAT ARE THE BEST ALCOHOL CHOICES?
If you really have to drink, what are the best choices? Some lower calorie brands to hit the market are showing promise, as are some of the more traditional alternatives.
As shown above, total caloric content of various alcoholic drinks varies, with beer generally containing the highest number, considering the smaller amount of alcohol found in this drink compared with others. Various spirits (also known as liquor) generally contain around 64 calories per nip, but these do add up depending on the strength of the drink (for example, a double will contain two nips, or 128 calories).
Combine this with one glass of coke (around 180 calories, 95% of these from sugars) and your typical bourbon and coke could supply 308 calories – double the number found in the average can of beer. Wine generally contains around 100 to 125 calories per medium sized glass. It also contains more alcohol than beer given the same volume, making it a better choice calorie-wise, as less would be consumed at any one sitting.
Liqueurs, although usually around 100 calories per nip, are often consumed with other, often-higher calorie mixers such as coke or milk to make cocktails, bumping the calorie content way up. Baileys Irish Creme, one of the highest calorie alcohols, contains 121 calories per nip, with a comparatively low alcohol content (17% compared to around 25-35 for most liqueurs). It is usually consumed 2-3 nips at a time given its lower alcohol strength. It is definitely one worth avoiding if weight loss is the aim.
DRINK ALCOHOL WITH A LOWER CALORIC VALUE, AND A HIGHER ALCOHOL PERCENTAGE (LIKE WINE FOR EXAMPLE). LESS WILL BE CONSUMED, MEANING LOWER OVERALL CALORIE CONSUMPTION.
The worst alcohol choices would be the cream based drinks such as a Vodka Mudslide, which contains coffee liqueur, Irish cream and vanilla ice cream and supplies 820 calories.
It would be better to drink a smaller quantity of liqueur with a healthier, lower calorie base such as trim milk or tomato juice (the latter being the base for a Bloody Mary cocktail).
Given alcohol taste is an individual matter, and people will usually choose what they like, rather than what they are advised to consume based on the health content of the drink, it is no easy task trying to persuade someone to change their drinking habits. The above information can however be used by one who is wanting to make some physical changes by lowering the overall caloric content of what they drink.
Some more general guidelines follow:
- Drink alcohol with a lower caloric value, and a higher alcohol percentage (like wine for example). Less will be consumed, meaning lower overall calorie consumption.
- Avoid high-calorie liqueurs. These are extremely deceptive (they taste so good) and will add enormously to overall caloric content.
- Keep healthy food on hand when drinking. As mentioned, drinking will relax the inhibitions and cause one to compromise their nutritional habits.
- If drinking beer, try a lower calorie alternative. Also, drink diet sodas with various spirits to significantly lower the calorie content of these drinks.
- Drink water between alcoholic drinks. This will increase feelings of fullness and may help to prevent over consumption of alcohol.
So what is one to do? Given alcohol plays a large role in celebration and social cohesion, can one completely refrain from its use? It really depends on the goals a person has. Most could probably consume moderate levels of alcohol (two or three standard drinks three to four times per week) without any problem.
Larger amounts (more than seven drinks at any one time), often described as binge drinking, can cause major problems and probably should not be advocated. Maintaining reasonable levels of health, while enjoying a few drinks – using moderation as the key – should be no problem. However, athletes – who definitely are not your average population – wanting to improve performance, and those wanting to lose weight are a different issue entirely.
Alcohol, as shown, will negate any efforts to lose body fat and will alter performance for the worst. The best advice would be to totally abstain until performance and weight loss goals are obtained.
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- Borushek, A. (2006). CalorieKing alcohol information. [Online]
- Shape Fit. (2006). How alcohol effects your weight loss – alcohol calories and fat. [Online]
Tremblay, A., & St-Pierre, S. (1996). The hyperphagic effect of a high-fat diet and alcohol intake persists after control for energy density. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 63, 479-482.