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Understanding Alcohol

“Alcohol is the anaesthetic by which we endure the operation of life.”

– George Bernard Shaw

I couldn’t agree more with good ol’ George Bernard. And good ol’ alcohol has provided the perfect setting for lots of fun times too. As you might have gathered by now, I do enjoy a good tipple now and then. But alcohol, as most of us have realised sooner or later, has its downsides too. Apart from everything else, it can become the enemy of weight loss, with all the disappearing kilos suddenly doing an about turn and returning right back to where they were. But there’s no need to despair and morph into a miserable teetotaller. One just needs to understand what alcohol metabolism entails; what the ill effects of alcohol can be; and, how to minimise weight gain caused by drinking sessions.

First it should be stated that, from a nutrition point of view, alcoholic drinks are considered to largely consist of “empty calories” (alcohol is NOT carbohydrate). Empty calorie foods lack micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc) and fibre, but they still have a high calorific value and are easily converted into fat by the body. It’s also interesting to note that there are enough studies to show that alcohol consumption per se does not contribute much to net weight gain, as it actually increases the metabolic rate. It’s really the myriad additives and accompaniments to an average booze session that are the main culprits. Of course, if you look hard enough you can always find some “study” to support your argument, no matter which side of the fence you’re on :-) – but don’t forget to make sure the study is credible, and has been done scientifically, with vetted reliability and validity.

You would recollect that alcohol contains 7 calories per gram (100 percent pure alcohol). Since the specific gravity of alcohol is about 0.8, this means that 100 ml of pure alcohol weighs 80 grams and contains 560 calories, not counting additives in spirits like beers, wines and whiskies. Scary!

Alcohol calories

But hold on. If everybody drank pure alcohol they would have long since departed for that great big bar in the sky, and the world would be left with only dreary teetotallers. In fact, all spirits contain way less than 100 percent pure alcohol (ethanol). There are different measures used to express this: In Europe, it is percentage ethanol by volume (% v/v) and in the US the measure is percentage proof, with 100 % proof being equal to 50% v/v (57% v/v in India and UK). Indian regulations require that both proof and v/v be printed on the bottle label.

This 57% v/v alcohol is sometimes known as ‘London Spirit’ in the trade, which is equivalent to 100% Proof (also written as 100° Proof). Anything weaker than this (most commercially available booze) would be ‘Under Proof’. So 80° Proof could also be called 20° Under Proof. Most Indian whiskies, rums, vodkas, etc, are 75° Proof, or, 42.8% v/v. Wines and beers are obviously of much lower proof (but volume consumed is much higher).

With all the above facts, it’s pretty easy to calculate the calories in a large/double peg (60 ml or 2 ounces, the usual measure in India) of your favourite intoxicant. The actual alcohol content in it would be about 26 ml, equivalent to 21 grams. Multiply that by 7 calories and you land up with 147 calories for a large peg of whisky/rum/vodka/gin. Now that’s not too bad at all, is it?

Tasty junk!

If only! But what happens in reality is quite different. That large peg is usually doused with colas, juices or other sweetened drinks, and accompanied with varying amounts of deep fried snacks and all possible forms of junk. So it seems that poor, innocent alcohol has had to take the unfair rap for weight gain, when all along it actually has been everything else that goes into an average boozing session that’s the real culprit.

You can keep on enjoying a drink or few now and then, and still lose weight if you’re sane with everything else. Replace most of the cola with water and ice, perhaps with a dash of squeezed lime. And replace fried snacks with roasted ones, along with an undressed salad of crunchy sliced cucumbers and carrots.

Fat-sparing and acetate

Nothwithstanding all the above, moderation with alcohol is key to any weight loss programme. For it is not just a matter of calories. Alcohol has other effects on metabolism that could interfere with fat storage. During and after a drinking session, as the liver metabolises alcohol prior to fats, there is a build up of fatty acids, which ultimately get stored as fat. This phenomenon is known as “fat sparing”. Alcohol also tends to slow down fat metabolism (use of stored fats as an energy source) because a significant proportion of the consumed alcohol is quickly metabolised into acetaldehyde and then acetate, which serves as a preferred energy source to fat. I’m no expert, and have found no credible sources to substantiate the “acetate for enegy” claim, but I would think that if this is the case, it would be a good idea to burn that acetate right away with some (legal) physical activity — such as walking or dancing your high away! The worst you could do is make a fool of yourself, unless of course you’re dancing on the ceiling.

Excessive consumption and binge drinking also have many other ill effects that are well known and documented, and I have no intention of repeating them here.

Bottom line: Be moderate, be reasonable, be sensible. And continue to enjoy those drinks as much as I do too!

– Val Souza

[This article was first published in Val Souza’s 100 for 100 blog (www.hundredforhundred.com), which deals with inexpensive weight reduction without suffering or grief.]

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