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How Alcohol is Metabolized

What should you eat before and after drinking alcohol?
By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
December 28, 2011
Episode #169

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We’ll be ringing in a new year in a few days and I daresay a few glasses of champagne or other spirits will be enjoyed by many Nutrition Diva listeners. So this seems like the perfect time to address some of the lore about alcohol and nutrition. For example, is it a good idea to eat a big meal if you’re going to be drinking? If you’ve over-indulged, can certain foods ward off a hangover? Is it true that alcohol is metabolized into sugar or that it blocks your body’s ability to burn fat?  Answers to these and other frequently asked questions about alcohol—along with my tips on how to indulge safely—are coming up.

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How is Alcohol Metabolized?

Some sources claim that alcohol is converted into sugar by the liver. This is not true. Alcohol is converted to a number of intermediate substances (none of which is sugar), until it is eventually broken down to carbon dioxide and water.   Because too much alcohol is quite harmful to your cells, this detoxification process is a pretty high priority for your body. That means that if your liver is busy dealing with alcohol, it will delay dealing with other nutrients—which is why drinking alcohol causes your blood sugar to go down and your blood fats to go up temporarily. 

It’s also often said that alcohol shuts down your body’s fat-burning engine. This is technically true but a little misleading. All it really means is that your body will use the by-products of alcohol metabolism as fuel preferentially. Over the long haul, however, this doesn’t have much impact on the amount of fat you burn or store. As always, the amount of stored fat on your body is primarily determined by whether you’re taking in more calories than you’re using. The source of the calories is really secondary. 

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