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Can you drink and diet?

A new study says you can. But nutritionists disagree as it could affect weight-loss goals

Can you enjoy good metabolic health and drop a couple of vanity pounds without foregoing your daily aperitif?
Can you enjoy good metabolic health and drop a couple of vanity pounds without foregoing your daily aperitif? (iStock)

In August last year, VS Ramachandran, a Coimbatore-based entrepreneur, found himself heavier than he liked to be. “All that sitting at home due to the lockdown…,” says Ramachandran, who usually runs long distances and lifts heavy weights to stay fit. So, he decided to lose it by the book—embarking on a healthy, balanced nutrition plan and working out hard, basically the “right” way to tackle weight loss. Over around seven weeks, he lost five kilos , a consistent, reasonable rate of weight loss. However, there was one thing Ramachandran didn’t give up, something nearly all of us who’ve embarked on a nutrition plan have been told to avoid: alcohol. “I am not a big drinker, but I do drink socially,” he says. “I don’t think having a few drinks made a difference to my weight loss process.”

Moderation, when it comes to alcohol (or anything fun, really), is a relative term. We all have that friend who can have a bacchanal night and still turn up bright and early at the gym the following day. And there are others—yours truly is one of them—who get tipsy (and very, very giggly) with a single cranberry-flavoured Breezer or half a glass of homemade wine. However, a recent study, which analysed the effects of moderate alcohol consumption, specifically beer, put an actual number on how much alcohol is permissible, even good for you, claiming that one can regularly drink a certain quantity and not gain weight.

According to the meta-study, which examined all studies and reviews evaluating the health effects of beer published between January 2007 and April 2020, “moderate beer consumption of up to 16 g alcohol/day (1 drink/day) for women and 28 g/day (1–2 drinks/day) for men is associated with decreased incidence of cardiovascular disease and overall mortality, among other metabolic health benefits.” It also concludes that this moderate consumption of alcohol decreases diabetes risk in men, increases bone mineral density, lowers the risk of fractures in the elderly and does not seem to be related to general obesity. “Future studies should refine the quantity of beer considered as low-to-moderate consumption, which is the lowest risk level and further determine the possible health benefits associated with moderate beer drinking,” states the study, published in peer-reviewed journal Nutrients.

Applying alcohol limits isn’t a particularly new thing; it’s been around, right from the ancient world: the Code of Hammurabi, for instance, decreed a daily ration of beer, based on social standing, in Mesopotamia back in 1700 BC. But claiming alcohol is “healthy” continues to be somewhat controversial.

Despite many moments in history where people thought drinking spirits was better for health than water—understandable since the latter, back then, could often be highly polluted—recent narratives around alcohol have almost always focused on its adverse effects. And yes, while red wine occasionally makes an appearance in superfood lists, sharing space with other less divisive candidates like berries, salmon and green tea, you don’t have to drink it to get the heart-fortifying benefits of resveratrol. Plenty of other foods contain this antioxidant, including grapes, berries and peanuts; you could also just pop a supplement.

“I would never, ever promote alcohol for its health-promoting benefits... never,” says Shwetha Bhatia, a registered dietician with the Indian Dietetic Association Association. Bhatia, founder of Mind Your Fitness, a sports and performance clinic with branches in Pune, Mumbai and Goa, firmly believes this: no one is drinking for good health, they drink because they like it. She points out that compliance and disordered eating are already issues if people need to lose a considerable amount of weight and seek help to get there. “Any nutritionist will tell you not to indulge (in alcohol) because it puts you off track, and we can’t gauge results,” she says.

Her thoughts are echoed by Dr Anju Sood, a Bengaluru-based clinical nutritionist who holds a PhD in nutritional science. “Most alcoholic drinks are empty calories,” she says, adding that this impacts fat metabolism. During the initial stages of weight loss, where total calories matter—and a lot—regular drinking could completely derail any attempts to shed the pounds. Throw in the fact that alcohol also makes you make poorer nutritional choices—yes, pakoras and chips, I’m looking at you—and you could end up setting yourself up for failure as far as weight loss is concerned. But, of course, if complete abstinence feels impossible, there is a way around it—even if you are on a strict, goal-oriented diet. “Enjoy your drink but let it be part of your reward or cheat meal,” says Dr Sood. “And balance it out by eating a lean protein and some good fat as well.”

But what about people who don’t have preexisting health conditions, including obesity or addiction and want to have a regular drink or two? Can you still enjoy good metabolic health and drop a couple of vanity pounds without foregoing your daily aperitif?

Perhaps, say most nutritionists, adding that this comes with certain caveats: avoid sugary mixers like cola or juice; make sure you’re eating something with protein, fibre and good fats; stick to a couple of drinks (it doesn’t matter which, they all get metabolised more or less the same way). And, again, self-control and being sensible is non-negotiable.

“People who don’t drink the whole week, may think that since you are allowed one drink a day, you can do five in one day. That is absolutely not allowed,” says Bhatia. Your liver has a specific capacity, for starters, and this becomes terrible for your health. “It is essential to pull back and analyse where you stand with alcohol since it is an addictive substance,” she adds.

This is why Rahul Gopal, a Chennai-based sports nutritionist and strength and hypertrophy coach, believes that most people would be better off avoiding alcohol entirely. “The more disciplined lot, who are more aware of foods, calories, can incorporate it once in a while and still make sure they’re within their targets for the day,” he says. “To put it simply, it’s ok as long as you keep within targets, but for most people, zilch is the best answer.”

Ramachandran, for instance, ensured that he never went over three drinks (two for beer) whenever he drank and avoided mixers like juice or cola entirely. He also avoided fatty snacks, moderated his calorie intake the day before and after his indulgence and threw in some extra cardio too. And this may not work for everyone, he is the first to admit, pointing out that he was meticulous about planning his alcohol consumption, something not everyone can do. “People shouldn’t think it is not unhealthy to drink while losing weight,” he believes.

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