Eating Really is Cheating

person holding corona bottle

When it comes to drinking alcohol, the old saying “eating is cheating” you used to throw around when you were young and out on the town is not so far from the truth.

Today, I wanted to talk about alcohol, drinking habits and how it relates to health, particularly weight gain and how eating could really be cheating when it comes to alcohol consumption. I have discussed alcohol briefly before in my 5 tips for avoiding weight gain over the holidays and does Christmas really make you fat but today I’m going to go a little bit deeper.

When we look at the literature and studies of alcohol consumption, we can see that in populations that have a no alcohol or a moderate one to two drink per day intake, there isn’t a huge correlation to gaining weight or obesity.  On the flip-side, populations with heavy drinking or binge drinking habits have been pretty closely linked with gaining weight and obesity. This also tends to lead to inflammatory adiposity, meaning you are not only gaining weight through subcutaneous fat (under the skin) of the arms and legs, you are creating more inflammatory fat around the midline – the well known beer belly.

Let’s consider what happens when you consume alcohol.  Your body sees the alcohol as a toxin and makes that the primary metabolic source of fuel over and above anything else that you consume at the time. The body seeks to convert the toxin to energy and burn it up as a way to remove it from the body. It prefers alcohol energy over all others as it is aiming to remove the danger from the body.

This simultaneously inhibits fat oxidation.  It spares the burning of fat as fuel, therefore, leading to fat storage and long term weight gain. However, this only occurs when other fuel is being consumed by the body. So if you are eating whilst consuming alcohol, the body preferences getting rid of the toxin and stores the rest of the energy (carbohydrate, fat and protein) in the muscles and liver and then as adipose tissue in fat.

According to Ben Greenfield “If you were at a caloric deficit and alcohol is being consumed as a primary source of your calories, you should be more concerned about the liver, the inflammation, and the amount of acetaldehyde, the toxic byproduct of alcohol metabolism more than you should be concerned about weight gain.” So although eating with drinking causes you to store body fat, drinking on its own causes oxidative stress and inflammation all over the body, especially the liver as it deals with the toxin.

All of this means that timing your drinking is important. Allowing your body time to first process the alcohol and not have to process the energy from the food is a good idea. Having a pre dinner drink, rather than a drink with your dinner, would be a better option and only having one or two in total. So, for those who have prescribed to the eating is cheating philosophy in their younger years – it may not a complete farse. You may have used it when you were young to sound cool and tough, but ironically, it may actually work again in middle age to try and help avoid the dad bod or beer belly!

We also know that alcohol influences many different hormones and, what appears to occur, is that alcohol can increase appetite and influence hunger by acting on the serotonin pathways in the brain, sending hunger signals.  It can inhibit the response of leptin, the hormone responsible for telling you that you are full, or have eaten enough, resulting in overeating! Therefore, heavier alcohol consumption will suppress your appetite-regulating hormones and increase some of the hormones responsible for appetite.  So alcohol consumption is leading to weight gain by default, by messing with your hormones!

The other weight gaining factor for alcohol is the high fructose, sugar and calorie content. Four to five  standard drinks could add another 2000 plus calories to your daily intake. This is easily similar to, if not  larger than the amount of calories in a meal. It is like you are adding another meal or two to your daily intake! It also may lower your inhibitions, resulting in poor food choices in regards to the meal you are eating, like that late night kebab as you stumble home!

So, how do I avoid weight gain… light to moderate levels of drinking seems to have some longevity benefits especially if you’re drinking a nutrient-dense form of alcohol, such as red wine.  In addition, drinking on an empty stomach when the liver’s glycogen stores are empty, is probably going to help you out with the potential weight gain from alcohol.  Analysing your genetics to see if you should be taking certain supplement stacks or certain antioxidants like glutathione is something else you good do to negate the bad effects of alcohol.

So if you plan on drinking, consider these tips:

  • Do it in a fasted state on an empty stomach – eatin’ is cheatin’!
  • Take extra antioxidants to counteract the inflammatory and oxidation response, something like glutathione.
  • Don’t eat whilst drinking, that adds to the calorie count and to the storage of fat. (But remember to monitor your standard drinks and drink responsibly).
  • Consider a nutrient dense form of alcohol, like red wine.
  • And for longevity, don’t have more than one or two drinks at a time.

Does Christmas Really Make you Fat?

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Do we gain kilos of fat after two day binges over the holiday period?

The answer is probably not! You’re likely to have an effect on your stomach microbiota, but not on fat stores.

How is this possible? Let me explain…

Studies have shown that over the holiday period the average weight gain is only 500 grams. Not a lot of weight, but it could be a problem if you continued to eat in the same way all year round.

Having said that, a small amount of binging over the Christmas period my only result in a small weight gain if your binges are only on a couple of days a few days apart. Continued over eating results in weight gain.

There are a limited amount of stored calories our bodies can handle. If we consume more than we can handle, some will be burned off as heat through thermogenesis and some will end up in the toilet.

And then there’s water. Blood volume, and total body water in general, can vary quite a bit with exercise, medications, salt intake, and carb intake. I have talked about the Carb Cycle in not one but two previous blog posts but to recap… ingesting any carbs forces the body to use some for immediate energy and the rest is sent to storage. To store the carbs you ingest in your liver or muscles (an adult weighting 70 kg can store around 100 g of glycogen in the liver and 400 g in the muscles), your body must transform them into glycogen, then attach the glycogen molecules to water molecules: 3–4 grams of water per gram of glycogen. So if you eat enough carbs to top out your glycogen stores, you’ll be carrying an extra 1.5–2 kilograms in water weight. “Incidentally, that’s why “detox diets” appear to be so effective: they make you lose a lot of (water) weight in a short amount of time. So this could also account for small amounts of weight gain, water molecules attaching to the glycogen molecule after a meal high in carbohydrates.”

According to examine.com…

 The holiday period “means eating a lot … and gaining a lot of weight; but little of that weight is fat. Most of it is water and soon-to-be-poop. Overeating for a day, even by one or two thousand extra calories, won’t cause much fat gain. (Not to mention that many overeaters won’t eat as much as usual the next day.)”

Obviously what you eat matters, but the biggest contributor to weight gain over the holiday period is alcohol consumption. When we consume alcohol the body identifies this as a toxin and acts to convert it to energy to help remove the toxin from the body. What this also does is it give preferential treatment to the alcohol as the energy source as it needs to get it out of the body as soon as possible. This preferential treatment puts the burning of fat, protein and carbohydrates as the fuel source on the back burner (so to speak) and aims to get rid of the toxic alcohol. Protein can support fat loss, notably by suppressing appetite and boosting thermogenesis. As for fat, it doesn’t have any benefits with regard to fat storage, but it still beats alcohol with regard to fat gain, not because your body will store alcohol as fat, but because your body readily burns alcohol for energy (to avoid toxicity), thus dampening the oxidation of fat and other fuel sources. Not only that, but alcohol can increase your appetite in the short term.

Examine.com again…

“Overfeeding on protein (e.g., turkey) will cause less fat storage than overfeeding on alcohol (e.g., wine) or fat (as is plentiful in delicious pumpkin pies, not in the low-fat abominations). If you’re prone to overeating on Thanksgiving, it may be wise to load up on a bunch of turkey first, to help with appetite suppression.”

In Summary…

Significant body fat is gained in weeks or months, not in hours or even in days. On the other hand, water weight can vary rapidly with salt and carbohydrate intake, exercise, and other factors. Eating a typical Christmas meal can easily increase your body fluids, tricking you into thinking you’ve gained lots of fat. Even over the holiday season, however, not everyone gains fat, and feeling like you’ve gained weight doesn’t always mean you have.