Alcohol can be a polarising topic and as such is often met with a broad range of emotions. It’s culturally embedded into our society, often manifesting in the form of the relaxing post-work beer, a refreshing beverage after a hot day, wining and dining with friends and family, or a few drinks at the footy. We can often feel torn – do I enjoy a beverage or two? Or do I make the ‘healthy choice’ so I can keep my gym gains, compete better on the field, or just keep working towards goals of feeling leaner because we have all been taught you can’t do that fully while indulging in alcohol, right?
In this article I’ll be talking about the realities of what alcohol really does to the human body and how we can still enjoy alcohol without having to start fresh again on health’ next Monday morning.
Alcohol is a macronutrient, alongside the more commonly known macronutrients fat, protein, and carbohydrate. Alcohol differs, however, in that your body can store and selectively utilise the other macronutrients depending on the body’s requirements. Alcohol, on the other hand, is processed differently. From an energy standpoint, alcohol contains 7 calories (29kJ) per gram. This is in comparison to fat, at 9 calories (37kJ) per gram, and protein and carbohydrates, which both contain 4 calories (17kJ) per gram.
Upon consumption, alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream, processed predominantly by the liver and subsequently in other cells of the body. With greater concentration comes a greater rate of absorption, as well as potentially higher processing rates within the body. The exact mechanisms of processing alcohol depend slightly on sex, body mass and composition, whether or not it has been ingested alongside food, and the quantity of alcohol consumed over a period of time. Research looking into sex differences have shown that it is largely due to total body weight differences and the amount of lean mass. As a result, females typically process alcohol faster than males, due to typically weighing less and generally contain less muscle.
Eating food – regardless of whether it is high in fat, protein or carbohydrates – disturbs the alcohol absorption into the blood and thereby slows down the absorption rate. This makes the age old saying “don’t drink on an empty stomach” quite relevant as your body is able to more progressively digest and metabolise it within the liver, while also reducing the onset of adverse effects often seen with excess consumption. Once the alcohol is absorbed, it is metabolised faster when you have eaten food at the same time, or prior to drinking, due to your body already being in the process of digesting and processing the nutrients from your food. Similarly, there is a small amount of research suggesting alcohol is processed in your body faster when you exercise – potentially due to increased body temperature.
When a large amount of alcohol is ingested in a short period of time, the first processing method the body uses becomes overwhelmed and therefore the body uses a second system to try and process the alcohol as fast as possible. When this second system comes into play, muscle breakdown starts to happen, meaning that drinking in excess not only has a larger energy toll for your body, but it can also put a dampener on all the great eating and exercising you’ve been doing.
The potency of the alcohol consumed isn’t the only thing that leads to the buzz and other effects. The type of alcohol included in your drinks can change your experience later on, particularly including how you feel the following day. Clear liquors such as vodka and gin are some of the purest forms of alcohol, meaning that you can have a few more drinks with less of a hangover the following day in comparison to their coloured counterparts. Brown liquors and all other coloured beverages contain congeners, which are components that are produced or added in to make the beverage, and are largely responsible or the flavour of the drink (think yeast and hops in beer). such as yeast in beer. In addition to flavour, however, they can be contributors to the headache and hangover the following day. Some of these congeners, however, are also antioxidants – such as those found in red wine. These have been found to be provide protective effects in some health conditions: whiskey, for example, has protective effects on your gut lining.
Further to these detrimental effects is the energy (i.e. calories) you consume when you have beer, cider, wine and other mixers. This extra energy does not increase risk of a potential hangover; however, it does affect the daily energy in - energy out balance. Unfortunately, this balance often times pushes you into an energy surplus, making it more likely for your body to store this excess energy as fat mass. In addition to this, alcohol consumption is a contributor to higher cholesterol.
Collectively from the information we know alcohol is okay to consume and can have some beneficial effects for health, however when it is consumed in large quantities it can have significant negative short-term effects (hello hangover and that text you shouldn’t have sent) in addition to longer term effects on your body composition and health.
To enjoy the best of both worlds and enjoy your down time, opt for clear spirits with low energy mixers such as soda water or diet mixers and drink over a longer period of time. Also be sure to enjoy some nutritious and delicious foods while you’re at it! This way you can decrease muscle breakdown, enjoy the positive effects of alcoholic beverages and be more likely to awaken with a clear head the following day.