There are several common misunderstandings when it comes to the consumption of alcohol and health. Many people believe that drinking a glass or two of wine each night will improve their heart health. Still others believe that hard liquor does not have as many calories as a beer. It could take a while to break down all of the aspects of alcohol and health; however, many common beliefs can be traced back to occasional “news” stories based upon research. The problem is that sometimes research can be misinterpreted in news stories and before long the misinterpreted research becomes common belief. I’m not saying that there isn’t a time and place for consumption of alcohol, however, the countless experiences that I’ve had with my Personal Training clients combined with knowledge of how the body works has led me to share with you a little bit about this.
The first thing that we should take a look at is what alcohol is exactly, and what does it do in our bodies? Regardless of the drink, whether it is beer, wine, liquor, or some kind of mixed drink….a certain percentage of that drink is made up of molecules of alcohol (otherwise it wouldn’t be an alcoholic drink, obviously!) Alcohol molecules are a type of sugar molecule. Alcohol is a simple sugar. Inside of our bodies, our digestive tract is designed to “break down” food such as starches and complex carbohydrates until it is a simpler molecule… or one that is capable of being absorbed into the bloodstream through the walls of the digestive tract. Simple sugars are foods that are already broken down to a point where they quickly absorb into our bloodstream. Basically, our bodies don’t have to work very hard to digest simple sugars. This can be reflected in how sugary snacks don’t ever seem to “fill you up”. In regards to alcohol, it is actually the “simplest” sugar molecule that there is…basically a super-sugar. In fact, while most sugars have to travel through the digestive tract until they reach the intestines to be absorbed, alcohol can be absorbed through the lining of the stomach. That’s how easy it is to digest.
With that knowledge, the next thing that is important to know is what happens in your body when simple sugars are ingested. First, when you eat or drink something that is comprised of simple sugars, you enter a momentary state of high blood sugar. The moment that sugars are absorbed through the digestive tract into the bloodstream, your body reacts by releasing the hormone insulin into the bloodstream in order to return the level of blood sugar to a normal level. Insulin takes the sugar molecules out of your bloodstream and into the muscle cells of your body that need it for energy or it stores the extra energy reserves in your liver. So, the release of insulin is the instant response that your body has to ingestion of simple sugars…including alcohol. Many people have heard of insulin and quite possibly, if they know anybody who is a diabetic, they think that it is some type of prescription drug. It is a hormone that is naturally produced in our bodies by the pancreas. Insulin is essentially a storage hormone. However, our bodies are always trying to maintain some type of balance. So, there is a second hormone that is produced by the pancreas that much fewer people have heard of before. It is called glucagon. Whereas, insulin is the storage hormone….glucagon is the release hormone. Its role is to essentially tell the body to release stored bodyfat from the areas of our body where it is stored, and
send it into the bloodstream. If anyone is interested if “losing” bodyfat, this is important to know simply because fat loss is a two-step process. First, fat has to be released into the bloodstream using glucagon. Second, you “burn it off” when your muscles take the fat out of the bloodstream to use as energy. You absolutely cannot “burn off” bodyfat if it doesn’t make it into the bloodstream to begin with. Like I said, your body is always trying to maintain some type of balance. So when you eat or drink simple sugars, your blood sugar spikes, and insulin is pumped out of the pancreas in reaction to this…your body cuts way back on its production of glucagon. Essentially, bodyfat becomes “locked-in” to the fat storage areas of your body and cannot be released into the bloodstream for chunks of time after you ingest those simple sugars. It doesn’t matter if you are exercising vigorously during that period of time. Your body will simply use the sugars for energy and not your stored bodyfat. Want a surefire way to hold on to bodyfat despite your exercise efforts? Drink alcohol regularly or eat sugary foods daily. I don’t care if you call it your “daily fix”, your “little reward” for making it to your aerobics class this morning, you think that “a calorie is a calorie” despite what food it comes from, or you’ve been told that “it’s okay as long as you add it to your point total for the day”, that’s the way it is. Maybe it isn’t alcohol for you. Maybe it’s that muffin and orange juice each morning, the sugary latte, or perhaps your 100 calorie pack of cookies. Either way, it’s a saboteur of fat loss efforts and will make you hormonally incapable of burning bodyfat for a period of time. The “two” glasses of wine each night (or whatever your drink of choice is) will do the same thing to you. Whereas, normally your body will be “burning” a mixture of bodyfat and sugars throughout the evening and nighttime to use for energy…now it can’t use bodyfat for a chunk of that time (the length of time is different for everybody.)
You see, when you step back from it all and look at the big picture…you realize that our bodies are not robots. We are not machines. It is not as simple as “I ate 1,500 calories today and burned off 500 in my workout.” We are complex living beings with many things contributing to our overall body size, shape, and energy levels including hormones, genetics, environmental factors, and more. We cannot eat 1,000 calories a day to “leave enough calories in my day for my alcohol at night.” It doesn’t work that way…at least not entirely. My most successful clients are the ones that grasp the concept that ‘what you eat’ matters as much as…if not more than ‘how much you eat.’ Our workouts are not designed around ‘how many calories we can burn’….but rather ‘building the body in such a way that we are burning more body fat for energy all day and all night long.’ Bottom line is that if you control your simple sugar intake… you can very well be burning body fat while you sleep! I would rather have my clients burning fat 24 hours a day and not just focusing on burning calories during a workout. This comes through a combination of optimizing the muscle tissue on your body, mixing in an appropriate amount of cardiovascular activity, and eating in a manner that is supportive of what we are trying to accomplish. Dieting (excessively cutting calories or entire food groups) is terrible for you and not what we want. However, there really is no place for simple sugars in your nutritional needs. Simple sugars can certainly be an occasional treat. We just have to understand that there are consequences to any choice we make…and you have to weigh those consequences against what your goals may be. If it’s worth it to you to have your “daily fix”, then go ahead.
Let’s look at it this way, our world has made it easy to obtain and ingest alcohol, other simple sugars, or really anything we want. We no longer have to work for our food. We don’t have to grow it
ourselves…or if we want something sweet….we don’t have to go find a beehive and collect some honey. Today we have bottles of the stuff on sale for cheap. We have unlimited sweet choices from honey, to cane sugar, to a slew a sugars made at a chemical plant, to candy, to readily available fruit (also simple sugars), to entire retail stores full of alcohol, to refined ‘white’ grains (also simple sugar…the complex carbohydrate parts have been removed), to many others too numerous to list. We live in a world of excess. We don’t have to work for any of it anymore. However, please remember that you do have control over 1 thing….. Your Own Little World Around You And The Decisions That You Personally Make. Take control over your personal world. Understand that you don’t have to stop at McDonalds (or any other fast food restaurant) and get the sandwich with the simple sugar bun, overly fat ‘meat’ patty, and the rest of the junk that they put on it. There are other choices.
Remember when I mentioned that burning fat is a two-step process? First your body has to release the fat from the storage areas of your body into your bloodstream. As long as you are in the proper hormonal state (because of what you are eating), then the ‘fat release’ step is happening all of the time at various rates depending upon how active you are. Then you need to challenge the energy systems of your body enough to “burn off” the fat. This is done through the proper blend of exercises. At Catalyst Fitness, we help people with this every day. We find the proper blend of exercises to put them on the path to reaching their goals while taking into consideration current fitness levels, past or present injuries, available time, and much more. The exercise alone isn’t enough…and neither is the nutrition.
So, ultimately the choice is yours to make. You can certainly have your cake and eat it too….as long as you know what it does to you!
- Jason Minich, BS is a native of the Fort Wayne area. A local fitness speaker and educator, he is also an ACE Certified Personal Trainer. He is the owner of Catalyst Fitness and was voted a Top 10 Personal Trainer of the Year for North America in 2009. For more information on Catalyst Fitness, visit www.catalyst-fitness.com.