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Busted! Alcohol myths, part 1: Alcohol turns to sugar and hangover cures

By Susan Burke March, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE

This week’s column is devoted to the top two myths about alcohol. In upcoming weeks I’ll cover a few others.chl susan logo2

Alcohol turns to sugar in your body and that’s why it makes you fat.

This is a common myth since over-consumption of calories from alcohol can quickly make you fat. But it’s not because alcohol is transformed into sugar in your body – it’s because of the way it is metabolized and stored as fat.

Alcohol is more quickly stored as fat than even excess calories from sugar (carbohydrate), or from protein, or even from fat itself. Fat has nine calories per gram, and protein and carbohydrate each have four calories per gram.

Jonathan, the morning after, nursing a cup of coffee.

Digestion begins in the mouth when you chew. Salivary enzymes begin the process for carbohydrates, while protein is further broken down by enzymes secreted in the stomach.  Both continue their digestive journey when they encounter a variety of enzymes in the small intestine. The small intestine is the site of the absorption of all nutrients and digestion of fat. Once in the duodenum, or the upper part of the small intestine, bile from the gallbladder and digestive enzymes secreted from the pancreas break down fat. Absorption of these three nutrients is through the small intestine into the bloodstream.

Alcohol has seven calories per gram but, unlike foods, which require time for digestion, alcohol is quickly absorbed. According to Brown University Health Promotion, about 20% of alcohol is absorbed directly through the walls of an empty stomach and can reach the brain in about one minute. Most of the remaining 80% is absorbed through the small intestine and then goes directly to the liver, where enzymes break it down.

How alcohol contributes to weight gain is both because it provides a source of quick calories, and because of the liver’s job in processing it; since the liver considers alcohol a toxin, it will go to work on it first, before fat, protein, or carbohydrate.

Since the liver’s priority is to detoxify alcohol before processing anything else, drinking slows down the burning of fat, which leads to weight gain. Since the liver’s job is to process alcohol first, drinking can cause low blood sugar because nutrients are not transformed into energy (glucose) for our cells and they would normally be. More about how alcohol affects people with diabetes in an upcoming column.Alcoholic Drinks

The myth about alcohol turning into sugar may have found its way into diet lore because, alcohol, like any liquid, goes down so very quickly – it’s typical to overlook liquid calories when you’re counting how many calories consumed during the day.

Distilled alcoholic beverages like vodka, gin, and rum do not contain any “sugar” or carbohydrate at all – it’s distilled alcohol. A scant 1-½ -oz. shot has about 100 calories and no carbs, but what we mix with pure alcohol can overload you with both. For example, sour mix, simple syrup, sodas like tonic water or Coke, are brimming with sugar; a 10-oz gin & tonic has 240 calories and 20 grams of carbohydrate, all from the sugar added to sweeten the soda…of course, a diet tonic will cut the carbs and so the calories.

Wine and beer contain small amounts of carbohydrate. For example, a 5-oz glass of white wine (about 100 calories) has about 2-3 grams of carbohydrate, depending on whether or not it is “dry” or “sweet” – still, just a fraction of the calories are from carbs (2 grams of carbohydrate x 4 calories per gram = 8 calories from carbohydrate). A regular beer (150 calories) has 12 grams per 12-oz bottle, a light beer about 6 grams.

Watching your weight? Because of the way alcohol is metabolized, drinking makes it difficult to lose weight and can loosen your resolve to eat less, or more healthfully. Click here for more info on calories and carbs in alcoholic drinks.

Drink a lot of water before going to sleep to prevent a hangover.

No doubt, drinking a lot of alcohol can make you dehydrated, but it’s not the source of your hangover. A hangover is from stomach irritation, low blood sugar (shakiness, weakness, irritability) and dilated blood vessels. Add to this a poor night’s sleep and you will likely feel crapulous in the morning. Some people are especially sensitive to congeners, substances that are produced during fermentation and are responsible for most of the taste and aroma in distilled drinks. Congers are known to contribute to symptoms of a hangover.  Bourbon contains 37 times the amount of congeners as vodka.  In general, darker liquors contain more congeners and cause more severe hangovers.

How much alcohol that causes a hangover for you will be quite different from your drinking partner; even if you’re the same size and weight – some can tolerate more, some can’t tolerate any.

The liver can process only one ounce of liquor (or one standard drink) in one hour. If you consume more than this, your system becomes saturated, and the additional alcohol will accumulate in the blood and body tissues until it Total-Wine-Summer-Infographic-V 4can be metabolized. Alcohol metabolism can depend on factors such as the amount of alcohol consumed and over what time period; body size; type and amount of food eaten along with alcohol; and level of physical activity. Understanding BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) is key to understanding how alcohol affects your body and the danger zones of alcohol poisoning. BAC measures the ratio of alcohol in the blood. So, a BAC of .10 means one part alcohol for every 1000 parts of blood.To see how to calculate how much alcohol you can safely metabolize in one hour click here.

Most women will feel the effects of alcohol more than a man, even if they are the same size. There is also increasing evidence that women are more susceptible to alcohol’s damaging effects than men. Women have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol. So a woman’s body will break down alcohol more slowly than a man’s.

According to James C. Garbutt, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, to try and minimize any negative effects of alcohol, eat food before you drink and continue to eat while you drink.  Foods, and fat especially, help to compete with the absorption of alcohol in the liver. To moderate your consumption, drink a glass of water between alcoholic drinks but understand that drinking water won’t undo the effects of too much alcohol. The day after, take an ibuprofen for a headache, but avoid aspirin; alcohol aggravates gastritis (stomach irritation) and aspirin can increase the risk of bleeding. Avoid acetaminophen (Tylenol) when drinking; in combination with alcohol, it can cause liver damage.  Heavy drinking can result in a vitamin B12 deficiency – side effects can mirror the symptoms of a hangover.

Dr. Garbutt notes that hangover “cures” are just myths. Coffee won’t help, the “hair of the dog” just delays recovery, and a fatty, greasy or otherwise “morning after meal” would help only if you’d eaten it the night before before you started drinking.

How to prevent a hangover? There’s nothing to be done if you exceed your personal ability to metabolize alcohol. If you choose to drink, drink slowly. Moderation is key, so respect your limits.

Resources

Compare calories in alcoholic drinks. https://www.fatsecret.com/calories-nutrition/food/alcohol

How alcohol affects weight loss: Calories and carbs in drinks. http://www.shapefit.com/weight-loss/alcohol-calories.html

What’s the best hangover cure? How to prevent a hangover. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/173349.php

Your digestive system and how it works. http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/Anatomy/your-digestive-system/Pages/anatomy.aspx

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Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally—a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to me at SusanTheDietitian@gmail.com
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9 thoughts on “Busted! Alcohol myths, part 1: Alcohol turns to sugar and hangover cures

  1. Susan, i feel this is a how to drink , choose calories, drink water and finally the eat during drinking tips. surely it would be better and healthier to have a how not to drink article?

    1. Hi Andrew – Most of my articles are sourced from questions readers ask me – or from statements I hear from real people. So, this article attempted to address two myths regarding alcohol – that it turns into sugar, and hangovers. I hope I was able to address these myths successfully.

  2. Hi Andrew – Most of my articles are sourced from questions readers ask me – or from statements I hear from real people. So, this article attempted to address two myths regarding alcohol – that it turns into sugar, and hangovers. I hope I was able to address these myths successfully.

  3. Reading these comments feels like a “where can uneducated, idiots post myths” Fat does not make you fat, carbs thats arnt burned are stored. Understand paleo, understand fat is what your body is made to digest and burn for energy. Stop eating carbs you overwieght, under-trained population. Get educated. Have a great day.

  4. About sugar in alcohol, Luis Pasteur was the first to demonstrate the fermentation process in 1857. yeasts a living organism, feasted on sugar, converting them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. there is no sugar in alcohol after fermentation.

    1. Excellent question! Unlike carbohydrates, calories from alcohol are not converted to glycogen, a form of stored carbohydrates, and thus are not a good source of energy during exercise. Alcohol has calories but offers no nutrition. When alcohol is consumed, a very small portion of the alcohol is converted into fat. The body’s liver then converts most of the alcohol into a substance called acetate. Acetate is then released into your bloodstream. When your blood acetate levels rise, your body simply uses more acetate instead of fat.Alcohol has 7 calories per gram and can be used as an energy source by the body just like carbs, protein, and fat can, (4, 4, and 9 calories per gram respectively). However, the body must burn the alcohol calories first, before it can move on to the other food you’ve eaten/
      A study by the Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed a 73% reduction in fat and carbohydrate metabolism for three hours after consuming only two 90 calorie vodka drinks. The more alcohol you consume, the longer this window will be.

      So if you’re trying to lose weight, if you’re a regular drinker, cut out alcohol and you’ll be pleasantly surprised how effective just eating a balanced meal plan is for weight loss (without alcohol).

      1. 1 Is acetate a toxin?
        2 How is acetate burned or oxidized?
        3 If alcohol is turned into fat, what determines whether it is stored in the liver or elsewhere in the body?
        Thanking you in advance!

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