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Why alcohol doesn’t ‘turn to sugar’ and other myths about drinking

Author’s note: All good things must come to an end, at least for now! I’ve enjoyed writing the Food, Nutrition, and Your Health column for CuencaHighLife over the past five-plus years, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them.

My husband and I last November decided that we’d like to relocate to Europe for a while, to explore Spain and different cities in the Schengen Area — we’ve been delayed due to the pandemic, but hopefully will depart in early July.

This will be my last column, but if you’d like to read previous columns, just go to the ‘authors’ link and click on my name.

Myth #1: Alcohol turns to sugar in your body and that’s why it makes you fat.

This is a common myth since the 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 alcohol is metabolized and stored as fat.

Lifesum.com summarizes nicely how alcohol is so quickly absorbed and stored as fat.

“When alcohol is consumed, it’s broken down into acetate—which is similar to vinegar. The body burns acetate before any other stored energy in the body. In other words, it thrives on the alcohol instead of any excess fat you might be working towards reducing. The body prefers acetate to sugar and fat. In other words, your body will cling to the treats you had earlier in the day or week and thrive on the alcohol. That’s why plateaus are so common for those who drink and are working towards fat loss.

To make matters worse, alcohol had a knack for temporarily stopping the body’s lipid oxidation. This makes it even tougher for your body to burn existing fat. If you’re looking to gain weight, scientifically the best approach is to drink a lot and eat a lot of fat.”

 

Unlike protein, carbohydrate and fat from food, which requires mechanical mastication and digestion, liquid 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.

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.

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 — if you’re journaling what you eat, it’s pretty common to overlook liquid calories — liquid calories add up.

Distilled alcoholic beverages like vodka, gin, and rum do not contain any “sugar” or carbohydrate at all — but just an ounce of distilled spirits contain about 100 calories — no carbs — but what we mix with pure alcohol can overload you with both. For example, a powdered sour mix, or simple syrup, or sugared sodas like tonic water or Coke — all 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 or plain club soda will cut the carbs and so the calories.

Wine and beer contain small amounts of carbohydrates. 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” but still, only 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 of carbohydrate per 12-oz bottle, a light beer about 6 grams.

The takeaway: if you are 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.

Myth #2: drinking a lot of water before going to sleep will 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.

But for most, 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 for info from Brown University’s BWell.

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 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!

The Takeaway: 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.

Sources:
Brown University: BWell. Alcohol and your body.
FatSecret.
Compare calories in alcoholic drinks.
How Stuff Works. How Hangovers Work
Lifesum.com. How alcohol makes you gain weight.
Medical News Today. What can I do to cure a hangover?
National Institutes of Health. Your digestive system and how it works. 
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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