The Truth About Alcohol (+ 5 Tips for Smarter Holiday Sips)

The Truth About Alcohol (+ 5 Tips for Smarter Holiday Sips)

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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The Truth About Alcohol (+ 5 Tips for Smarter Holiday Sips)

Mixing, mingling and making merry this holiday wouldn’t be the same without alcohol. But for those of us with an agenda to neutralize weight gain, adding alcohol to the equation makes this a tough one to balance. Here’s why:

ALCOHOL IS THE SECOND MOST POTENT SOURCE OF CALORIES

Partying with alcohol is fun because we like feeling intoxicated, but this intoxication comes with a caloric price tag. One gram of alcohol is 7 calories, which is more than one gram of carbohydrate (4 calories) and protein (4 calories) but less than one gram of fat (9 calories).

WE DON’T BURN EXTRA CALORIES TO METABOLIZE ALCOHOL 

Not like we do from digesting carbs, fat and protein. This phenomenon, called the “thermic effect of food”, refers to the energy we use to digest food into small, absorbable components. Because alcohol is so easy to absorb, it enters our bloodstream without burning any extra calories.

YOUR LIVER DOES THE DIRTY WORK

Because alcohol is seen as a toxin, the liver prioritizes metabolizing alcohol first (get in line, fat…it’s not your turn!) which means you won’t be burning calories from other sources while that happens. The liver is only able to clear alcohol at a rate of around one ounce liquor per hour, which is why consuming more than this will leave you feeling tipsy.

ALCOHOL MAKES YOUR BLOOD SUGAR DROP, MAKING YOU WANT TO REACH FOR THE CARBS 

The liver helps keep our blood sugar steady, but a liver busy at work metabolizing alcohol can’t do this effectively, causing your blood sugar drops and stays low until the alcohol is metabolized. This explains why you crave carbs and wake up the next day with a headache.

ALCOHOL CALORIES THAT AREN’T BURNED WILL BE STORED AS FAT

This is true for all extra calories eaten no matter the source, but what makes alcohol calories worse is that they are stored in your liver first. It takes time for the liver to ship out the alcohol-induced fat for proper storage in your fat cells. If the liver doesn’t do this fast enough (or if you drink too much, too often) the fat stays stuck in your liver and around your abdomen giving you what we refer to jovially as a “beer belly.”

This of course doesn’t mean you need to completely dodge all social sips this season. Here are some tips to help prevent you from gaining too much of your holiday cheer:

1. Pour yourself half as much

This will help you limit yourself to one or two drinks per party.

2. Avoid higher calorie mixed drinks

Forgo eggnog, margaritas, mudslides and other sugary mixed drinks — or have one and consider it dessert.

3. Alternate between having alcohol and water

You’ll stay well hydrated.

4. Sip slowly

Take the time of enjoy your alcoholic beverage.

5. Keep your alcohol budget at or below 200 calories

Pick these lower calorie alcohol alternatives:

  • Red or white wine: 5 ounces | Calories; 125, Carbohydrate: 4g
  • Light beer: 12 ounces | Calories: 100; Carbohydrate: 5g
  • Champagne: 5 ounces | Calories: 100; Carbohydrate: 1g
  • Vodka, whiskey, rum or gin: 1.5 ounces | Calories: 96; Carbohydrate: 0g

How do you keep tabs on your alcohol intake during the holidays?

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.

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