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.
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.
Should You Eat Before Drinking?
And speaking of calories, it’s definitely a good idea to eat some before drinking. Unlike other nutrients, alcohol can be absorbed directly from your stomach into your bloodstream, where it travels to your brain. This effect is accelerated when you drink on an empty stomach. Having food in your stomach slows the speed at which alcohol enters your blood stream. A meal that includes some fat will work the best—but, despite popular lore, you don’t have to eat greasy fried foods. Healthier sources of fat, such as some guacamole, vegetables sautéed in olive oil, or a nice piece of salmon will work just as well.
4 Ways to Help a Hangover
1. Rehydrate. Many hangover symptoms are due to dehydration. If you’ve had quite a bit to drink, try to drink several glasses of water before retiring. Keep a glass of water next to the bed and if you wake up in the middle of the night, have some more. Continue drinking water once you wake up.
If plain water is making you queasy, Gatorade or another electrolyte replacement drink may be easier to handle.
2. Try aspirin and caffeine. The combination of aspirin and caffeine works better than either alone to relieve headaches and other hangover symptoms. You can simply take a couple of aspirin (or Alka-seltzer, if your stomach is upset) and have some coffee. Although the popular headache medication Excedrin contains both aspirin and caffeine, it also contains acetaminophen. The combination of alcohol and acetaminophen can be extremely toxic to the liver so you don’t want to take Tylenol, Excedrin, or any other drug containing acetaminophen if you’ve had more than a couple of drinks. (See also the Housecall Doctor’s article on acetaminophen.)
3. Have a light meal. Although it’s true that alcohol metabolism depletes certain B vitamins, there’s not a lot of evidence that taking B-vitamin supplements will help cure or prevent a helpful. What’s worse, B-vitamins can make you queasy, which is the last thing you need. But it couldn’t hurt to sprinkle some nutritional yeast (which is naturally high in b-vitamins) on a piece of toast. Even better, stir it into some scrambled eggs. In addition to being easy to digest, eggs also contain cysteine, which may be helpful in relieving symptoms.
4. Take a walk. Gentle movement such as a brisk walk will help increase your oxygen levels and will speed the metabolism and clearance of alcohol and its metabolic by-products.
Please, Celebrate Responsibly
I’m sure you’re aware that it is unsafe to drive if you’ve had more than one drink. But I was surprised to learn that having a hangover can also impair your reaction time and motor skills—even after your blood alcohol is normal. So, it’s probably best to avoid driving and operating machinery with a hangover.
As I discussed in my previous podcast on the long-term health benefits of alcohol, the damage caused by drinking too much is far, far greater than the benefits of drinking a little. A good rule of thumb is to limit yourself to one alcoholic drink per hour, which is the maximum speed at which your liver can process or detoxify alcohol.
The most important thing is to be safe and enjoy your New Year’s Eve festivities responsibly. And if you find yourself in the mood to make New Year’s resolutions, here are my 4 secrets for making and keeping resolutions.
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