Consuming alcohol and indulging in a well-made drink or your favorite glass of wine has become much more of a social experience and the chance to bond with friends and family members than just an excuse to make you fall off your chair, forget your troubles or stagger around for a few hours.
Having a drink has become a means to relax, catch up on personal relationships, and enjoy the company of others. Most of you probably enjoy having the occasional drink with friends, family and loved ones and may wonder how this fits into your Paleo lifestyle, if at all. Is alcohol paleo? Do you have to give it up to attain and maintain your ultimate healthy lifestyle?
One of the main tenets of the paleo diet is removing processed foods and toxins from your diet. Alcohol happens to be both a processed food and a toxin. So, the short answer is drinking alcohol is not ‘Paleo’, but it does form a part of many people’s lives. Knowing and navigating your options can allow you to make the most accurate, informed choice for you and your situation.
Studies have demonstrated the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Alcohol can promote socializing (although it should not be necessary in order to socialize!); it can reduce stress, promote endothelial function and reduce post-prandial blood sugar and lipid peroxidation (when consumed with food).
There are, however, many concerns (1; 2; 3) associated with alcohol, especially when consumed regularly, in large quantities:
- Alcohol is toxic to the liver.
• It is a known and documented addictive drug.
• Excess alcohol in your system will cause your liver to prioritize the detoxification of the ethanol over the uptake of nutrients.
• Fat metabolism is delayed while detoxifying from alcohol consumption.
• The liver cannot metabolize alcohol into sugar, which can cause a dip in blood sugar and a rise in blood fats.
• As some toxins are not processed, they are stored as fat.
• Alcohol is causes dehydration and can affect electrolyte balance.
There are a few types of alcohol worth discussing in greater detail:
Beer is mostly made from wheat, barley, and hops. These are not foods that are included in a Paleo template and should probably be avoided
Wine is often considered the most Paleo friendly of alcohol choices. There are various organic options, especially for red wines and antioxidants such as resveratrol can help prevent damage to blood vessels, lowers ‘bad’ cholesterol, and prevent blood clots. When consumed moderately, red wine is often considered to be a healthy alcoholic option in the Paleo community.
White wine removes both the skin and the tannins from the grapes, resulting in a lighter colour but this process also removes the resveratrol.
Both beer and wine go through the process of fermenting sugar and starches most often found in fruits, various plants, coconuts, sometimes rice, and, in the case of beer, wheat and barley.
Spirits undergo 2 processes: the fermentation of grains followed by distillation. The gluten found in alcoholic beverages is a major concern for those adhering to Paleo principles. Distillation removes most of this gluten.
The process of distillation is also responsible for the higher alcohol content of spirits. Alcohol creates a psychological response in your body which lowers your inhibitions, which in turn makes it easier to justify poor food choices. The wine may be part of your Paleo diet, the chips and dip or breaded appetizers are probably not!
A special mention - Hard Cider.
Hard cider is a fermented (awesome!) alcoholic beverage typically made from apples or pears. Cider has been increasing in popularity, especially as an alternative to beer, over the last few years due to increased awareness of the problems gluten can cause. Most ciders on the market are naturally gluten free but you may want to verify this on the label long with preservatives including potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate, both of which have been shown negatively affect immunity. Hard cider can be considered Paleo friendly, just be on the lookout for added sugars and whenever possible choose a dry cider due to its lower sugar load.
The truth is that the decision to have a drink or not is entirely up to you. However, before deciding whether or not to have one, think about why you are having one.
Are you having a drink or two because you had a rough day at the office, your relationship just ended, you are upset or irritated with a friend, your kids are giving you a headache, or because everyone else is drinking?
If you are choosing to drink:
Choose your drinking company wisely.
Peer pressure-induced binge drinking is a reality. If your group of friends enjoys over indulging and drinking past the point of no return each time you all get together, chances are you will be joining in on their good time. Being the only sober person in a room definitely wears thin quickly.
Research purporting the health benefits of alcohol consumption revolves around ‘moderate drinking’. This is defined as one, two or three drinks per day depending on the study. The authors are generally studying a glass or two of the alcohol of choice and not continuous drinking for hours, days or weeks on end.
Drink with your food.
When you eat a meal, and your stomach is filled, the pyloric sphincter muscle (which controls the passage of food and drink from the stomach into the small intestine) begins to close giving your stomach time to break down its contents. Any alcohol added to a full stomach will also spend more time being broken down by the relevant enzymes. If you drink on an empty stomach, the pyloric sphincter remains open and a larger proportion of the alcohol will enter small intestine and be absorbed almost immediately.
Shots of inexpensive (or even high quality) spirits are concentrated sources of ethanol. Alcohol with a low fluid content is a relatively new addition to the human diet with accounts of distillation dating back to 800 BC to the mid-12th Century, depending on your source. Alcohol as commonplace is a definitely a phenomenon of modern ages. As I pointed out above, less fluid means less volume in your stomach, which means a more open pyloric sphincter and greater accessibility to the small intestine which means faster absorption into the bloodstream. Conversely, more fluid means more volume in your stomach resulting in a more restrictive pyloric sphincter and slower absorption. The Ancient Greeks, along with some modern folks even believe watering down their wine enhances its flavor – feel free to try and decide for yourself.
Be aware of your lifestyle.
If you choose to drink and want to remain healthy, taking an honest look at your Paleo lifestyle is important. Is your nutrition in check for the majority of the time? Are you moving your body? Sleeping well? Implementing stress mitigation and management practices? Getting outdoors whenever possible? Connecting with others? Alcohol can fail to have and impact (positive or negative), or may even enhance your healthy lifestyle in some way but it definitely will not make a bad situation (physical or mental) any better.
When navigating your personal decisions around alcohol, I recommend choosing, and forgetting about it! There is no right or wrong way to do this. Alcohol consumption is a much deeper topic than its physiological effects on your body. It becomes about how you connect with other humans, a question of digesting your daily emotions and a question of your ability to deal with stress.
My goal is not to tell you what or how to do alcohol this season. I hope to help you think a little deeper about your relationship to alcohol and how you will choose to manage it through the holidays. Make you choice and then decide to relax (as much as you are able) and enjoy moments, friendships, conversations and connections