In my opinion, there is nothing like sinking onto the couch after a long day and sipping on a glass of red wine. The very ritual causes my muscles to unravel and unknot, my breathing to slow down, and my overactive brain to take a break.
It’s not that I drink a lot, but when I do, I enjoy it. This isn’t something highly unusual or strange—alcohol is something that we, as a society, enjoy and have done so for centuries. We pop bottles of champagne to celebrate a special occasion. We pour a whisky for a friend when they visit or have a glass of wine with a nice meal. We can find almost any occasion to mark with an alcoholic beverage to make it feel exciting or relaxing. And, there was a time in Mesopotamia, 5,000-odd years ago, when workers were paid for their toil in beer rations.
However, alcohol is either looked at with disdain or adoration. We assume it’s evil or the best thing since sliced bread. Like most foods that we try to squish into a moral box, we don’t allow for the middle ground to exist where we can both love it and moderate it.
Fitness professionals or nutrition gurus will tell us to cut it out altogether because it can hamper our weight loss efforts, and most of us will (at least for a few weeks) begrudgingly give it up for the sake of our waistlines. Other folks clutch their drinks with an iron fist and indignantly exclaim that they won’t do it if a diet requires them to give up drinking. But is it all bad? As with anything in life, the dose makes it poison or the perfect tonic.
The fourth macronutrient
Alcohol is sometimes known as the fourth macronutrient (others you may be aware of are protein, carbohydrates, and fat). Drink Aware, a resource that provides alcohol advice, says that whereas protein and carbohydrates have approximately 4 kcal per gram and fat has 9 kcal per gram, alcohol has 7 kcal. However, while your body requires the other macronutrients to operate, it doesn’t need alcohol. Because of this, we refer to alcohol as having empty calories.
If you haven’t had a moment to check out the Drink Aware website, I highly suggest you do so. I plugged my drink of choice (red wine) into their online calculator and was faced with the startling reality that two glasses of wine equals one cheeseburger or 31.8 minutes of running.
Beyond being full of empty calories, alcohol has several physiological effects that make weight gain easier. When drinking, you tend to crave salty, savoury foods, which are higher in calories because they contain lots of fat.
I have rarely seen people chow down on a kale bowl while sipping their whisky or wine. It’s usually roasted and salted nuts, chips or biryani. These foods, high in fat, sodium and carbohydrates, can cause people to overeat.
Secondly, alcohol affects sleep. The study titled Sleep, Sleepiness and Alcohol Use found that heavy consumption of alcohol caused an increase in night wakefulness, resulting in less than restful sleep.
Not having a restful sleep may not seem like something to pay much mind to. However, one night of sleep deprivation can cause up to a 20% decrease in your metabolic burn the following day—right around the time you’re craving a greasy breakfast to get rid of your hangover.
In short, this means that when you drink, you’re more likely to make poor food choices. As a result, you will also sleep poorly, burn fewer calories the following day, and require highly calorific food to ease you back into the land of the living after a hard night out.
This may only be the situation for one night a week for many people, but one night of heavy drinking can unwittingly unravel an entire week’s work of good food choices. And yes, it could lead to weight gain in the long run.
How to drink right
But what about the research that says that alcohol can be healthy for you, such as the antioxidants found in red wine? In this case, the dose makes the poison—too much of a good thing will nullify any benefits it offers.
An article published on Harvard Health observes that heavy drinking can cause inflammation of the liver, scarring, increased blood pressure, heart damage, and increased cancer risks. According to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, moderate drinking (the limit within which most of us should stay) is seven drinks a week for a woman (no more than three on any given day) and 14 for a man (no more than 4 per day).
If you’re looking to stay healthy and trim while still enjoying the occasional beverage, the first step is to bring awareness to your drinking habits. According to a recent study published in Current Obesity Reports, people can drastically underreport how much they drink.
Just ask yourself on a Wednesday how much drinking you did last Saturday—you may get a range of answers as you try and remember. It’s worth keeping a journal of a typical week’s worth of alcohol consumption to make better decisions about your drinks.
The next step is to decide what your trade-offs will be. If you don’t want to stop drinking but want to make healthier choices, you have a few options to consider. Perhaps you choose a specific night to have alcohol rather than having a few scattered throughout the week. Another thing you can do is to decide to have a glass of water between each drink to reduce how many you have overall.
And finally, you can reduce your calories by choosing lighter calorie options—mixing water or soda into clear spirits has fewer calories than tonic, and wine has fewer calories than cocktails.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach