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Moderation. It’s one of those LOADED words that Puritans threw around and that we all still shake, stir and muddle to make more palatable. When it comes to alcohol, though, that word is etched in glass: 14 (or fewer) drinks a week and no more than four in a single day is “moderate”, according to the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
One drink means a 350ml beer, a 150ml glass of wine or a 45ml shot of 80-proof spirits. No matter how that adds up, I’d slipped past moderation, and I’d also seen my weight creep up almost five kilos. Blame it on a cocktail of deadlines, stress, inactivity and also fun. Sound familiar? A 2008 Human Sciences Research Council survey found that 39% of South African drinkers binge drink – or consume more than five units of alcohol at once – at least once a month.
That kind of drinking can make your belly bulge. Within minutes of your sipping a drink, your fat metabolism can wane. Because your body treats alcohol as a toxin, removing it becomes the top priority, says Angelo Tremblay, a professor of kinesiology at Laval University in Canada. That can cause your body to stop burning its usual stored carbs and fat for energy and instead utilise the alcohol. The double whammy: any other calories you take in, whether they’re carbs from your brew or protein from buffalo wings, end up as stored fat.
The average man needs an hour to metabolise 14ml of alcohol, the amount in one drink, so even a couple of drinks can have a dramatic effect. In a UC Berkeley study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who downed 30ml of alcohol from two cocktails showed a 73% decrease in fat burning after two hours. And in a Swiss study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, male participants who were given two beers’ worth of alcohol with each of their three meals experienced a slowdown equivalent to roughly 1 880kJ that day.
That’s one reason I decided to abstain for four weeks. Beyond its energy load and impact on your fat burners, alcohol can disrupt your sleep pattern, mess with your appetite and foment a cascade of other weight-gaining processes, according to Dr Donald Hensrud, co-author of The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook: Eating Well for Better Health.
“One reason to stop completely is to see how you feel physically and psychologically,” he says. If you can tough it out (or even feel better) while losing weight, then you can transition to more moderate measures to maintain your weight.
Waist size aside, two drinks a day may actually be healthier than none at all. If you graph drinking and mortality over a given time period, a J shape forms. Men at the bottom of the J have two drinks a day and are less likely to die during that period than teetotalers are. After two drinks, the number of deaths starts to rise and so does the risk of making bad lifestyle choices. In fact, heavy drinkers are significantly more vulnerable to HIV infection and sexually risky behaviour compared to non-problematic drinkers, says the South African Medical Research Council.
A toast, then, to moderation – and to finding the truth about drinking and dieting.
To help me navigate the tricky shoals of abstinence, I check in with the co-authors of Almost Alcoholic – Dr Robert Doyle, a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Professor Joseph Nowinski, a psychologist. First we strategise: the easiest way to change bad habits is to replace them with better ones. We identify specific danger drinks: the post-work decompressor, the social lubricator at a party or bar, the glass of wine that enhances dinner and the nightcap that takes the edge off. Then we figure out replacements. They also advise keeping alcohol hidden so I’m not reminded of what I’m missing. Things start out well: I replace my post-work drink with a 15-minute exercise circuit, and I stock bottles of mineral water and cans of carbonated water to help simulate the sensation of drinking alcohol. The novelty of not boozing makes the first week flash by in a sobriety-fueled binge of productivity.
RESULT: I drop 1.5kg without sacrificing any of my favourite foods.
Alcohol Wrecks Your Sleep
Scientists know that alcohol sabotages sleep quality and that good sleep is critical to weight loss. Sleep is not like a light switch, says Dr W. Christopher Winter, medical director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. “It’s a brain activity more like laughter, and it relies on a series of neurotransmitters syncing up to enable the cascade of sleep,” he says. “Alcohol interferes with that, taking a wrecking ball to your sleep architecture.”
Though booze may help you drift off, it affects the first half of the sleep cycle, which is when most men sleep deepest. Because alcohol is a sedative, it suppresses dreaming. Then when it’s metabolised, your brain wakes up, causing fragmented sleep and nightmares. A study from the University of Michigan Alcohol Research Center found that heavy drinkers sleep less than non-drinkers (43 fewer minutes a night) and that the sleep they do log is of inferior quality. During deep sleep, your body carries out a series of restorative hormonal and metabolic functions. Without it, your energy system can misfire: you feel hungry when you don’t need food, and you make poor diet choices. In a French study, people consumed 2 340kJ more during the day following just one night of poor sleep than they did after sleeping eight hours.
THE FIX: Axe the nightcap. Your body needs time to process alcohol before you go to sleep. You could savour one drink when you return home from work, says Winter, and sip another with your meal, ideally several hours before you hit the hay. Instead of self-medicating, talk with your doctor about why you’re having trouble falling asleep.
The recycling guys are going to love me: I guzzle fizzy water even when I’m not thirsty. Having that can in my hand keeps me in a comfort zone. This means the replacement strategy is working, says Doyle. But I’m still struggling to replace the flavour and buzz of wine and beer. Doyle offers surprising solutions: eat more local food and try diverse cuisines. “Take your taste buds on safari so you’re not bored,” he says. He likens it to exploring regional wines. He also encourages me to look for other indulgences, like dark chocolate and cheese.
RESULT: Boom – I drop another 2kg!
Alcohol Leads to Wings
Beer goggles work on food too. When you’ve had a few drinks, fatty foods seem even more attractive. Alcohol triggers a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes you feel good. And fMRI scans of social drinkers show decreased activity in brain circuits involved in detecting threats, along with increased activity in circuits involved in reward, says the NIAAA’s Professor Lorenzo Leggio. At the same time, your body also releases ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone, and galanin, a neuropeptide that may lead you to eat more fat. The result is called hyperphagia – an abnormally increased appetite. You go for the guilty-pleasure food, and the alcohol washes away the guilt. A 2013 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that men ate 1 810 more kilojoules (1 103 from alcohol, 707 from food and other beverages) and nine percent more fat on days they drank than on days they abstained.
THE FIX: Slow the rate at which alcohol enters your bloodstream. A recent Northern Kentucky University study points out that having food in your stomach can help slow the absorption of alcohol by as much as 57%. That means your lard furnace may remain more active. The takeaway: drink only after you’ve started eating a meal, says study author Cecile A. Marczinski, an associate professor of psychology at Northern Kentucky University. When dinner’s done, you’re done.
That can also help you avoid the weight-loss witching hour. When you’re tired and drunk, you risk an appetite meltdown with no “off” switch. So try the old trick of chasing each drink with a glass of water. The water adds volume so your stomach feels full, and it helps slow the absorption of alcohol so you’re less likely to end up trashed and eating garbage. Also, decide what and where you’ll eat afterwards before you start drinking, says nutritionist Cynthia Sass. “Having popcorn or hummus with vegetables handy when you arrive home means you’re less
likely to raid the kitchen for biscuits or chips.”
I still don’t miss alcohol after work or with meals. My exercise circuit releases feel-good endorphins, and my diverse diet keeps dinner lively I’m also eating more cheese as dessert, pairing blues and aged cheddars with apples, pears and walnuts. My nightcap is now a square of dark chocolate. Like red wine, dark chocolate triggers a hit of dopamine and contains resveratrol, a heart-healthy antioxidant. Instead of surfing wine websites, I cruise for upscale chocolates, made with single-origin beans from exotic places like Madagascar. Doyle was right: exploring new foods is fun.
RESULT: Up half a kilo – cheese and chocolate!
Alcohol is Loaded with Kilojoules
Alcohol packs 30kJ per gram, second only to fat (38kJ); by contrast, protein and carbohydrates contain 17kJ per gram. But metabolising alcohol so it can be used as a fuel burns 20% of its kilojoules. That means the actual energy yield from alcohol is closer to 21kJ. Then you add in the mixers… According to a Danish review, exceeding two beers a day increases your risk of “abdominal adiposity” – known to you and me as beer belly.
But drinking moderately doesn’t necessarily lead to weight gain. In a five-year study, also from Denmark, men who averaged one daily alcoholic drink were 21% less likely to stretch their belts than those who didn’t indulge. Another study, in Nutrition, found that moderate wine drinkers tended to not gain any weight after six years, while those who drank beer and spirits more heavily did. Why? Because red wine may interfere with the way fat accumulates in fat cells and may also reduce the size of fat cells, say researchers in Spain. Plus, the resveratrol might affect the expression of a gene that controls the formation of body fat, reports Nutrition Reviews.
THE FIX: “Wine is the best option if you’re watching your belly, followed by spirits and then beer,” says Hensrud. For beer drinkers, the keys are, again, moderation and water. When you enter a bar, order a glass of water and drink it, he says. That way you won’t klap your first beer. Keep alternating beer and water. (Ditto for wine. Sip mindfully to stretch your drink.) Note that craft beers tend to have more alcohol and kilojoules per mil than regular beers do, says Professor William C. Kerr, a senior scientist at the Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group, so “keep track of how much you’re drinking.”
I’ve been tested at bars and parties, but I use the tactics suggested by Doyle. I carry around a highball glass with carbonated water, rocks and a lime – a concoction that looks like a gin and tonic. If people ask why I’m not indulging, I blame my doctor: “My blood sugar numbers put me close to prediabetic, so he told me to cut back. Bummer, right?” I still crave a nightcap, but along with snacking on dark chocolate, I’m auditioning different closers, like practising yoga and reading fiction. I’ve been sleeping much better, having vivid dreams and waking up energised and clearheaded.
RESULT After cutting back on cheese and chocolate, I drop 1.5kg. My total weight loss is 4kg. The kicker: many of the experts I interviewed admitted that they drink a glass or two of red wine most days (but not every day). So I’m getting ready to reintroduce wine with meals. In moderation, of course.
By Ben Court