We are well into the holiday season and having an alcoholic beverage (or two) is often part of the celebration.
There is no way to sugar coat the facts – alcohol isn’t really Paleo. More importantly alcohol is not supportive in reaching whatever health goals you want to achieve.
There are ways to make alcohol less toxic, to keep your Paleo diet more intact, and to reduce its negative impact on your health!
When looking for the most health conscious, Paleo friendly way to indulge in a few drinks, it is important to understand the basics of alcohol metabolism.
Alcohol is metabolized differently than the other macronutrients. Protein, carbohydrate, and fat metabolism is regulated by hormones. This allows excess quantities of these nutrients to be stored in the body and utilized in times of need, like when fasting. Alcohol is a toxin to the liver and excess alcohol cannot be stored in the body. Instead it remains in your body's water until eliminated. This is why alcohol takes highest priority in the process of metabolism.
If you are looking to lose weight, alcohol consumption will inhibit your fat burning process since it overrides fat as a primary source in metabolism. It also lets those macronutrients take a backseat during the metabolism process, which contributes to weight gain.
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.
If your goals include weight loss or dealing with serious health concerns. I would not recommend alcohol consumption at all. For many people though, Paleo is not simply something you do to get where you want to be, it is a lifestyle! You want to be able to socialize and have a few drinks without derailing your lifestyle or lying in bed all weekend with a hangover. With this in mind, you may not want to totally abstain from enjoying a celebratory beverage this holiday week and you may as well make the best choices that you can with your alcohol selection.
There are a few types of alcohol worth discussing in greater detail:
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.
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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
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!
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. If you are choosing to drink, there are some further considerations to minimize the negative impact alcohol may have
Skip the Mixers!
Just about anything that normally gets mixed with alcohol is not Paleo at all and is not healthy. From juice to soda to diet soda to sweet and sour mix, they all have some form of sugar or artificial sweetener, as well as a bunch of other additives.
Instead use club soda/soda water, which has no sugar. Beware of tonic water, which has added sugar.
Set A Limit.
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. No matter what research you look at, there are always negative consequences with more than 1-2 drinks a day.
To slow the absorption of any alcohol, consume foods with some fat (bacon anyone?), protein, and fiber. This also reduces blood alcohol concentration by as much as 50 percent compared to drinking on an empty stomach.
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.
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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. On the other hand, 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.
Most importantly, always remember to drink the same fluid ounces of water for each serving of alcohol.
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.
Before you pour yourself a glass of something intoxicating, consider your health goals and overall eating habits, and then make smart choices about which type of alcohol you drink
My goal is not to tell you what or how to do alcohol this holiday season. Make you choice and then decide to relax (as much as you are able) and enjoy moments, friendships, conversations and connections